WASHINGTON – Behind a serving line inside the District of Columbia National Guard’s armory, empty boxes that once contained warm meals quickly stacked up, forming a small hill of cardboard and ripped Scotch tape.
For Spc. Venice Cephas, it was a clear sign that Soldiers and Airmen were consuming food at a rapid pace.
It was also a sign that Cephas and other food-service specialists with the D.C. Guard were working at lightning speed — labeling food, ensuring it’s safe to eat, replenishing stock, properly disposing of garbage, and moving troops through the serving line quickly.
“This takes commitment,” she said, reflecting on her contributions to the National Guard’s mission to protect the Capitol after the presidential inauguration. “But it feels good, [because] I do it for my child, I do it for the country, I do it for the people of this good nation, and I do it for my comrades.”
Though the number of Guard members supporting the mission have dropped to about 7,900 since the inauguration, the care and morale of Guard members remains a top priority.
Army Lt. Col. Sekou Richardson, the acting logistics deputy director for the D.C. Guard Joint Task Force, described the operation’s logistical efforts as providing “creature comforts” for visiting Guard members.
“We try to make D.C. their ‘home field away from home,’” he said. “It’s our job as leaders to make sure that not only are they not bored, but that they are cared for and there are options for them when not on duty.”
One example of this, Richardson said, is coordinating with the United Services Organization to provide video gaming centers inside the armory — the staging point for operations.
“It keeps our morale up because it brings stress relief from the situation out here, giving us space and the opportunity to get away from whatever we are doing when we have free time,” said Spc. Devante Fairnot, a combat engineer with the Virginia Army National Guard’s Company A, 229th Brigade Engineer Battalion.
Competing in the digital worlds of professional football, caged fighting or futuristic warfare, he said, enhances camaraderie.
“Hanging out with my battle buddies here is a great way to close out the day,” Fairnot said.
The quick downloads of the video games Guard members like Fairnot play come from the efforts of communication teams provided by the National Guard Bureau.
Army Maj. Robert Killian, a California Army National Guard member serving as a signals liaison officer for the NGB, said his team has worked with the USO and telecommunications companies to put in additional bandwidth.
“We were on the (armory’s) drill floor and we were testing like a 125 ‘megs’ to a cell phone, which isn’t that bad for how many people were on it,” said Killian.
Additionally, he said, NGB pushed out portable broadband devices to Guard members at certain Capitol Hill-area locations that improved operational communications and helped troops meet training requirements via video conference platforms.
The real benefit, however, is providing Guard members the means to reach out to family and others during the mission — something Killian said he’s all too familiar with.
“That’s the most important thing for me because I’m away from my wife and my kids,” he said. “Providing (Guard members) that extra bandwidth, and helping to facilitate that, is the biggest contribution I can make.”
While family may be only a phone call, text or email away, Soldiers and Airmen needing religious or spiritual guidance relied on Guard chaplains.
“We are here to ensure that Soldiers and Airmen have the opportunity to freely practice their faith,” said Army Lt. Col. Bob Patton, senior chaplain for the D.C. JTF.
While chaplains are used to providing ministry engagements and counseling services, Patton said the coronavirus pandemic has presented some challenges.
“We are asking them to be creative in their approaches and how they do their work to support Soldiers and Airmen,” he said, adding that could include visits on the streets or reaching out by telephone.
In the end, Patton said the mission of making sure Soldiers and Airmen remain healthy mentally and spiritually does not let up — despite the COVID-19 threat.
“All that has done is forced us to operate outside of our normal paradigms,” he said. “But (Guard chaplains) are still accomplishing our mission, and still meeting the needs of our Soldiers and Airmen.”
Part of those needs also involves ensuring Guard members receive adequate lodging.
“(Guard) representatives from each state come to us and we allocate what number of rooms they need and we fill them — through hotels in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia,” said Air Force Capt. Matt Duller, an officer in charge of a D.C. JTF lodging unit. “We have contracted out thousands of (hotel) rooms.”
It’s a Herculean task for his unit, he added, and one that involves making constant inquiries and anticipating potential issues.
“It’s that turnover (of troops) that we are having to deal with — trying to figure out when they are leaving, is their plane going to be delayed, is the weather going to be an issue; and when that lodging contract ends, are there enough (rooms) to actually hold the people who are still here and the ones who are coming,” Duller explained. “It’s just making sure that troops are where they are supposed to be because it’s such a big operation.”
For the DC JTF’s acting logistics deputy director, meeting all the morale and welfare needs of Guard members during a large-scale operation can be summed up in a few words.
“We remain flexible and agile,” Richardson said, “as we encounter any challenge.”