MILFORD, Mass – Sixty Soldiers from the Massachusetts National Guard – The Nation's First have been activated by Gov. Charlie Baker to help process a surge in unemployment claims due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Guard's "Steel Dragon" task force is processing about 6,000 of the 9,800 cases a day handled by the state as part of Operation Honest Pay. The cases are pandemic claims and are separate from the normal workload of the Department of Unemployment Assistance.
Guard members are handling the claims from June 1 to Aug. 31.
"The reality of what they are doing on the ground is we are helping the American people to get the money that they deserve, to help their families – their daily, monthly cost of living during these challenging times," said Maj. Charles Huynh, brigade intelligence officer for the 151st Regional Support Group and officer in charge of TF Steel Dragon.
The 60 Soldiers from 12 units are a melting pot of military occupational specialties, including military intelligence, truck drivers, combat engineers, mechanics and a variety of others.
"Basically, they run the gamut," said Staff Sgt. Daniel Bottego, a mechanic with the 1060th Transportation Company and the noncommissioned officer in charge of TF Steel Dragon. "We have got a little bit of this and a little bit of that."
The group was supposed to be on orders until June 30, but they have been extended until Aug. 31.
"When we recruited everybody for this mission, our priority was to have Soldiers that were unemployed or underemployed," said Huynh. "Now, with this extension, they are more than happy to continue because you can tell, they are happy to be here."
None of the Soldiers had experience using the system they are working on or analyzing IDs until this activation.
"Every week has been something new," said Huynh.
Many of the Soldiers speak more than one language, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, some African dialects and Chinese. This has proven to be very useful in processing some of the claims that have come in with documents not in English.
Huynh says maintaining a positive atmosphere is key to keeping morale high. Two Combat engineers, Spcs. Lionel Courturier and William Casey, 182nd Engineer Company (SAPPERS), have designed a logo and T-shirt for the team.
"The slogan – 'Steel Dragon! Lead the Way!' – I have that announced every day when we have a meeting at the end. They love it," he said. "Our goal as leaders here is to always set a positive atmosphere, and when you see Soldiers take the initiative to make a T-shirt designed for a task force like this, that means you know that they feel like they are part of a team and so you're doing it right. I will continue to try to keep the atmosphere that way."
Since the start of the mission, Task Force Steel Dragon has worked on about 38,000 cases.
"It's a nice hodge-podge of different units. We are working together well," said Huynh. "Just goes to show that in the Army, no matter where you come from, what unit, you are able to communicate on the same wavelength."