From COVID-19 Testing Sites to Food Banks, National Guard Members Continue the Mission

By Joseph Siemandel

Army Spc. Dameon Spurgeon, a motor transportation operator with the Washington Army National Guard’s 1041st Transportation Company, assembles test kits. | Photo credit DoD/Joseph Siemandel

While many people in Washington state are returning to work, hundreds of service members from the Washington National Guard are entering their fourth month of supporting the state’s COVID-19 response.

“When I first started on orders, I was working at a test site in Bremerton, but now I am making the test kits,” said Army Spc. Dameon Spurgeon, a motor transportation operator with the Washington Army National Guard’s 1041st Transportation Company.

At first, Spurgeon said, he was confused as to why he and his fellow Guard members were wearing protective suits and masks.

“But then we started testing people, and it made sense,” he said.

“We were interacting directly with individuals that could have the virus.”

Spurgeon is one of more than 1,000 National Guard members who were activated four months ago to support the overall COVID-19 response in Washington. Members of the National Guard continue to support food banks, conduct COVID-19 mapping, operate community-based COVID-19 testing sites, assemble test kits and assist state officials with processing unemployment claims.

Spurgeon’s team has been tasked with assembling more than 2.4 million test kits for the state by the end of August.

“I know this mission is critical, and we are running very smoothly,” he said. “I think we are expected to break 1 million [tests] next week.”

An aquatics manager at Great Wolf Lodge and reserve police officer in Tenino, Washington, Spurgeon says supporting the COVID-19 response is just part of what he likes to do – helping those who need help. In 2017, he was activated to fill sandbags in support of a flood in the small eastern Washington town of Sprague.

“I have always wanted to help our communities, whether it is being a lifeguard, a police officer, or a guardsman,” Spurgeon said. “I am just happy to help.”

While the number of Washington State National Guard food bank missions has been cut in half, as volunteers who had been homebound are returning, some service members have moved from the larger processing missions in SODO, part of Seattle’s industrial district, to the food banks to work more directly with the public.

Army Sgt. Nikko Ethridge, a cavalry scout with the Washington Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 161st Infantry Regiment, helps a visitor at the St. Leo’s Food Bank. | Photo credit DoD/Joseph Siemandel

“The interactions with people are overwhelming,” Army Spc. Alex Wanjiku said. “While at SODO, although we knew we were, it didn’t seem like we were helping out. But moving from the warehouse to here I now see it.”

Wanjiku moved to the United States from Kenya three years ago and immediately joined the National Guard because he wanted to assist others during their times of need. Since being activated, he has gone from processing food at the South Seattle warehouse locations to passing out food at the St. Leo’s Food Bank in Tacoma, Washington.

“Here I am, seeing the people I am helping, and they are so grateful,” he said.

Army Sgt. Nikko Ethridge, a cavalry scout with the Washington Army National Guard and a full-time corrections officer for the Department of Corrections in civilian life, has been serving since the initial call-up. Although he originally started at the SODO warehouse, he has supported two different activations, moving to the civil unrest mission in June.

“When I started, I was working at the SODO warehouse,” Ethridge said. “Then my unit was asked to go to Bellevue to provide support following the civil unrest. The people in Bellevue were so supportive of the Guard being there, and it was a nice break from the food bank mission.”

Ethridge has since spent time working at the Kent distribution center as well as the St. Leo’s Food Bank.

“At the warehouse, you are packing food and it’s easy to forget about the mission. But here [at the food bank] you see where the food is going,” Ethridge said. “We are working more hours here, have less breaks, but you never would know it. It is definitely more rewarding.”

All three said they plan to support the mission through the duration, and if they move to different locations or jobs, they are happy to do whatever to assist others.

“I love the state, like helping people, and what is a better way than working for the National Guard to do that?” Ethridge said.

-This story originally appeared on defense.gov. It has been edited for USO.org.

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