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Washington state Guard running in all directions

Washington National Guard Pfc. Trenton Choate packs a food box at the Emergency Food Network warehouse in Fife on Jan. 6, 2021. Photo by Joseph Siemandel.

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Security fencing at the Washington state Capitol is being defended by National Guard members as the Legislature reconvened in Olympia Monday, just one more example since last spring how reservists in our state have been called to the frontlines of one emergency after another.

Guard personnel have worked food banks, summer riots, forest fires, contact tracing, unemployment claims support, election security, and now protection of the Capitol, all the while other units deployed to the Middle East, worked with the Thai military, and others are preparing for a year deployment to Poland this spring.

Many have called 2020 the "Year of the Guard."  In fact, nationally, the Guard "has mobilized more Guard members, for longer, than at any time since World War II," Air Force Lt. Col. Devin Robinson, director of public affairs for the Air National Guard, wrote in a statement to Military Times.

Concerns grow for the safety of our state military.

A right-wing militia initially encouraged its members to occupy the Capitol as the Washington state Legislature started its 105-day legislative session.

An organizer of the planned Washington state occupation in Olympia canceled Monday's event but said he expected some people might show up to try to disrupt proceedings.

At least two people were arrested Monday. Lawmakers had to drive through an area gated off and guarded by National Guard to park outside the Capitol and arrive at the House and Senate chambers.

On the COVID fight, the Washington National Guard's 10th Civil Support Team was brought in last month to support the Washington State Department of Health, which is trying to speed up the process of analyzing COVID-19 tests.

"We are analyzing more than 150 tests a day, which is almost 15 percent of the entire state's Department of Health testing pool," said Capt. Brady Plunkett, operations officer for the 10th CST.

The process is pretty streamlined. Local providers conduct the COVID-19 tests, and once the Department of Health receives the sample, it is sent to the laboratory for analysis. The process takes less than 24 hours but having more qualified analyzers is critical to making that happen.

"We are utilizing our mobile laboratory, did some small configurations and we are able to analyze the tests in a safe environment," said Warrant Officer Daniel Jones, survey section leader. "We separate positive tests from negative tests. Once the results are confirmed, the information goes to our team in the communications truck to enter into the state's database, which notifies the provider, who then notifies the tested individual."

While this is the standard operation for the 10th CST, the team is happy to be able to provide the surge capacity to the state and the civilian health care system during this unprecedented public health crisis.

"Our folks know this isn't a standard mission for us, but they are happy to be able to provide the capacity to the state, helping us move forward in this fight," said Jones.

The 22-person team has been actively engaged with the COVID-19 response since this summer when members of the unit worked around the state to support community-based test sites.

The Washington National Guard also worked alongside Emergency Food Network staff and packed more than 8,000 food boxes last week for residents of Pierce County.

The week-long effort was a collaborative endeavor between Pierce County Department of Emergency Management (DEM), Emergency Food Network and the Washington National Guard. The food boxes will be distributed to residents who are participating in EFN's home delivery program.

"We are so incredibly grateful to both the National Guard and Pierce County Department of Emergency Management for this collaborative effort," said EFN CEO Michelle Douglas. "These boxes will go to feed thousands of our hungry neighbors throughout the first quarter of 2021.

"We've seen a 40 percent increase in the need for food assistance, and we are so excited to have this community support in feeding our neighbors."

Some members of the Guard have been processing, packaging and distributing food to the community for nearly nine months.

"Our Guardsmen are grateful to be a part of this effort because we see the difference we are making in people's lives," said Capt. Kelly Meade, the officer in charge of the Guard's food bank mission in the south Puget Sound area. "What they are doing here with Emergency Food Network and Pierce County is important."

Last month, members of the National Guard moved the Bonney Lake Food Bank across town to a large facility due to the increased need.

"I am always so impressed when I go to a food bank to check on how our teams are doing; they are so positive and engaged," said Meade. "We work in 13 different locations in the south sound, doing anything and everything we can do to help the community."

As of Jan. 12, the Washington National Guard has helped process, package and distribute more than 73 million pounds of food while supporting food banks across the state.

Next up? State officials have a nervous eye on recent rainfall which could require Guard personnel to grab sand bags and rescue equipment as rivers across the area breach their banks.

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