While the peak of the pandemic has passed and vaccines are rolling out across the country, some of your neighbors remain deployed more than a year since the start of lockdowns.
“I saw a good opportunity to still serve my community,” said Private First Class Luis Vargas.
Vargas deployed in March of 2020 to support the Freestore Food Bank. At that time, he didn’t know the mission would last for more than a year.
“I was told a month,” he said. “And I’m still here.”
Vargas is a member of the Ohio Army National Guard tied to Delta Company, 237th Support Battalion out of Hamilton, Ohio.
Vargas is one of approximately 5,600 Ohio National Guard and State of Ohio Defense Force members who’ve deployed since March 2020. Currently, about 900 remain deployed with approximately 340 members working at 14 food banks and warehouses across the state, according to Ohio National Guard public affairs.
Forty-eight guard members remain deployed in Cincinnati assisting with the Freestore Foodbank. It’s an operation that has helped pack and distribute 6 million pounds of food from March 2020 to March 2021, according to the Freestore Food Bank data.
Army Specialist Christian White requested to be deployed to the Cincinnati location.
“People were really struggling economically, so I thought it would be a really good way to give back to my home town,” said White, who is with the 2nd Battalion, 174th Air Defense Artillery Regiment out of McConnelsville, Ohio.
Typically when you think of the National Guard deploying locally, it’s due to a disaster like flooding or tornadoes. In the beginning of the pandemic members of the guard, they not only worked at food banks; they also assisted at Covid-19 testing locations.
Kentucky Air National Guard member Senior Airman Keontay Curry began at the testing sites more than a year ago and is now assisting at the Kroger vaccination clinic at the convention center in Covington, Kentucky.
“I like seeing people come and do their part and getting vaccinated, and hopefully we get back to normal,” he said. “And I’m glad we’re able to help.”
Curry is among 21 Air National Guard members deployed to help at the vaccination center on February 8, 2021. As of April 15, they’ve helped nearly 32,000 people navigate the vaccination process.
In Wilder, Ky., there are four Kentucky Army National Guard members assisting with food distribution at a warehouse for the Freestore Food Bank.
“We’re moving roughly 150,000 pounds of product a day five days a week,” said Army Command Sergeant Major Paul Rezac.
He’s been in the Guard for 33 years and has deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and the southwest border of the U.S. He said there have been approximately 30 soldiers from the 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade deploy over the past year across the commonwealth.
“A lot of our soldiers are traveling throughout the state of Kentucky to different vaccination sites, food bank sites, so they’re living in hotels for weeks and months and not able to see their family,” said Rezac.
Army Sergeant Quinten Boyd said this deployment is a little different than those overseas or those that entail a different mission.
“It’s not every day that a Sergeant is going to work hand in hand with a Command Sergeant Major are Brigade Sergeant Major,” said Sergeant Quinten Boyd. “It’s great to build those relationships and meet other people within the brigade, and really, you’re all working on the same goal to help out.”
Boyd deployed in October 2020 and moved to the food bank warehouse in Wilder in January 2021.
“It’s extremely fulfilling. You know we’re citizen soldiers; we live within the communities and state we deploy,” he said.
Currently, the Kentucky National Guard reports 239 members are deployed across the state. At the peak of deployments, there were approximately 800.
The four-person team at the warehouse has helped distribute 2.375 million pounds of food which served around 8,000 families, according to Kentucky National Guard public affairs.
While some guard members' orders have them ending their current deployments at the end of September, others run through the end of the year.
Ohio Air Guard Technical Sergeant Chandra Brondhaver says she answered the call and will continue to do so to get through the pandemic.
“Anything the community needs for us to come out and help I’m willing to help,” she said.