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194th Wing activates to support WA food banks

Volunteers have stepped up to help shore up the shortage of volunteer workers

Photo credit: Master Sgt. Tim Chacon

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(Photo: Soldiers and airmen from the Washington National Guard pack food boxes at the Nourish Food Bank warehouse April 3 in Lakewood. More than 120 Guardsmen from the WA NG were activated to support food banks across Washington state as part of the state’s COVID-19 response efforts.)

The 194th Wing began the mobilization process for more than 40 of its members at Camp Murray April 1 in support of Washington state's COVID-19 response efforts.

"At the request of county authorities, we're sending out the first wave of Washington Air National Guard airmen to support food banks across the state," said Col. Kenneth Borchers, 194th Wing Commander. "These volunteers have stepped up to help shore up the shortage of volunteer workers during these trying times. The massive economic impact caused by COVID-19 means that food bank services are critically needed, now more than ever. These Guardsmen are determined to do all they can to help their fellow citizens."

This group is part of more than 120 Washington Army and Air National Guardsmen being activated to provide humanitarian assistance at 11 food banks throughout the state. They are part of the Washington National Guard's Joint Task Force Steelhead, the state's COVID-19 military response force.

Capt. Steve Vuleta, B flight assistant commander with the 111th Air Support Operations Squadron, is the troop commander for the Air Guard component of the food bank distribution forces, and like many of the Air Guardsmen on the team, is an example of the need to always be ready to step up and serve.

"I showed up thinking I was going to be reporting to a lieutenant colonel and be in charge of one of the elements going out to a food bank. But he ended up getting pulled for a higher level position that needed to be filled and now I'm in charge of all these elements."

The sudden change for Vuleta may have been as a surprise, but he was ready for the challenge.

"It's been a really good time so far. It's really worked like a well-oiled machine. I've been making sure we have everything we need and making sure our people are taken care of, so they can go out there and take care of the community," he said. "The non-commissioned officers are leading the way like they always do and everyone is really responsible, really knowledgeable, really eager to help out."

Over the coming weeks, these Air Guardsmen will help food banks prepare and package food to ensure citizens, who rely on food bank assistance, get their basic food needs met.

"I'm eager to see and talk to the points of contacts at food banks and find out what they need for success and create a unity of effort between us and the community," Vuleta said. "Our success will be dependent on what the community thinks. We can come up with our own performance metrics, but at the end of the day, I think success is meeting what the community needs us to do."

For many on the force this is their first opportunity to give back and help their community in a real-world response.

"I wanted to make an impact and do something others aren't doing. It's one of those things like ‘if not you then who?'," said Senior Airman TJ Overall, freight rate specialist with the 194th Logistic Readiness Squadron. "Putting myself out there shows others they can put themselves out there. Whatever comes up, I always put my name down (to volunteer)."

A global pandemic of this scale may not have been expected, but this type of support is exactly what 194th Air Guardsmen prepare for in a Domestic Operations response.

"I'm enormously proud of them and hope they can provide some level of comfort and reassurance to our community as we collectively struggle through this unprecedented challenge," said Borchers.

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