FRANKFORT, Ky. – More than 800 Soldiers and Airmen in the Kentucky National Guard are helping numerous agencies in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Many have left their civilian jobs to step up and fill the gap to aid their fellow citizens who have found themselves in need during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Robert Acosta has played the clarinet for more than 20 years. He is pursuing his master’s degree in music performance at the University of Louisville. In mid-March, his schooling was interrupted due to the virus.
Acosta also serves as an Army musician in the 202nd Band of the Kentucky Army National Guard. Less than a week after his schooling ended, he was activated as part of emergency response efforts to the coronavirus pandemic.
“When we were called up, I immediately wanted to help out in any way I could,” Acosta said. “This is what I signed up for; this is what I wanted to do. There was some excitement, but there was also some uncertainty about what the mission would be.”
Acosta is serving at a drive-thru testing site. Members of the Kentucky Guard have also served at local food banks, provided site security, sorted personal protective equipment at state warehouses, and constructed and staffed an alternate care facility capable of serving up to 2,000 patients at the Louisville Expo Center.
Sgt. Cason Nelson is a field artilleryman in the Kentucky Army National Guard and a lifeguard at The Home of the Innocents, a community center for at-risk children and other vulnerable people. He was recently stationed at a Norton’s Children’s Hospital in response to Gov. Andy Beshear’s call for an “extra calming presence” at hospitals.
“It was nice to be visible in the communities so that citizens knew that we were out there, on the lines, and with them,” Nelson said.
He said the ability to serve is especially meaningful to him.
“I had a coworker whose sister-in-law went into labor during the snowstorm of 1994. It was a National Guard Humvee that transported her to the hospital to deliver. This is why you join the National Guard, so you can serve your community. That was a big part of why I enlisted in the National Guard.”
Phil Miller, state chairman for the Kentucky committee of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, says Guard members are integral parts of their community.
“The Guard was designed to be a community-based force. In all 120 Kentucky counties, the county judges know that they can count on the Guard in times of emergency. The people of Kentucky have learned that as well.”
Staff Sgt. Cody Hensley of Burlington led a National Guard team at Bourbon Community Hospital in Paris. He normally works for Spectrum as a construction coordinator for fiber and coaxial lines. He spoke about the value of having Soldiers on his team that were from Paris.
“One of our Soldiers went to school with some of the local police officers. It helps to break the ice. We built relationships with local law enforcement, Kentucky State Police, and hospital staff. They were really great people.”
As a part-time force, the National Guard is represented by Soldiers and Airmen from a variety of civilian professions.
“Looking at the civilian expertise that they bring with them, it’s a force multiplier in itself,” Miller said. “They develop a sense of analytical thinking that brings into play perspectives that they could only get from working outside the military. Their management expertise in many cases in their civilian capacity may be greater than what they are tasked to do in their military capacity.”
Maj. John Rock of the Kentucky Army National Guard, an assistant principal in Louisville, compared his COVID-19 mission with the Kentucky National Guard with his work in Jefferson County schools.
“Working with kids, it’s also a work in progress. You may not get results at the end of the day or the end of the week, but over the course of time, you hope to see progress with your students.
“Kids may come back in four or five years and say that school is what made a difference in their life. It’s one of those things that you stay the course because you know it’s the right thing to do. Whether it’s in here during COVID response or it’s working with kids. You may not win the battle but you’re going to win the war. You stay with it.”
Employers of Guard members share the challenges that accompany a disaster response.
“They are ready for me to be back,” Hensley said. “At the same time, they told me to take my time, and that they’d take care of everything. They assured me that they’ll be ready for me when I got back.“
Kentucky Air National Guard Airman 1st Class Elijah Lamastus says his civilian employer, Bowling Green Medical Center, is also eager for him to return to his job as an emergency medical technician (EMT).
“As soon as this mobilization ends, I’m going right back to work,” said Lamastus, who is an aerospace medical technician with the Guard’s 123rd Medical Group. “However, I’m grateful for this opportunity to serve. As an EMT, I get to help the citizens of Bowling Green, and as an Airman in the Air National Guard, I get to help the citizens of Kentucky.”
Rock acknowledged the efforts of his coworkers during his activation.
“I’ve got coworkers back at school that have picked up what I normally do because I am here. I think that sometimes those people are forgotten. I am very fortunate because I’ve got some great people that I work with that can slide into that role.”
Rock added that families also carry the load when a Soldier or Airman is activated.
“They pick up what you can’t do because you’ve been asked to do this and I think sometimes we take this for granted,” he said.
Acosta acknowledged that team effort during emergency activations of the National Guard.
“The reason I joined the Army was to be part of something bigger. I want to serve Kentucky well. We’re all on the same team here and fighting the same fight.”