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Student flight mobilization a first for Washington Air National Guard

Washington Air National Guardsmen Eric Cunningham, 194th Force Support Squadron Student Flight, works at a Lakewood, Washington food bank Sept. 2, 2020. Mark is one of six student flight members on State Active Duty orders supporting the state’s Covid-19 response efforts. This is the first time WA ANG student flight members have been activated on SAD orders. Air Guardsmen who have enlisted into the Air Guard but have not attended basic training or technical training are placed in student flight. (Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Tim Chacon)

Washington Air National Guardsmen Eric Cunningham, 194th Force Support Squadron Student Flight, works at a Lakewood, Washington food bank Sept. 2, 2020. Mark is one of six student flight members on State Active Duty orders supporting the state’s Covid-19 response efforts. This is the first time WA ANG student flight members have been activated on SAD orders. Air Guardsmen who have enlisted into the Air Guard but have not attended basic training or technical training are placed in student flight. (Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Tim Chacon)

CAMP MURRAY, Wash. -- Six newly-enlisted members of the Washington Air National Guard are serving in a domestic operations support role for the first time in state history, taking part in work at food banks alongside soldiers and airmen during the COVID-19 emergency. The enlistees are members of the 194th Wing’s student flight, which helps to prepare future Airmen as they await basic military training and technical training.

“It’s the first time this has ever happened in Washington State,” said Senior Master Sgt. John Austin, superintendent of the Washington Air National Guard’s 194th Force Support Squadron, who oversees the student flight.

As a result of intensive tasking for Guard members in food bank support, voluntary COVID mapping support to the Washington State Department of Health, military assistance for civil disturbances, and other training and deployment requirements, Washington Air National Guard leaders recognized a need for additional personnel. “Our volunteer pool was dwindling,” said Austin. While new enlistees cannot serve on federal missions before they have completed formal training, there is an allowance for them to serve in a State Active Duty status, said Austin. After Washington National Guard leadership authorized new enlistees to volunteer for the food bank support mission, Austin put out the word to his student flight members in early August.

Christine Krysiak of Parkland came onto State Active Duty in August, just weeks after graduating from Franklin Pierce High School. She follows her father, grandfather, and great uncle in joining the Air National Guard, and Krysiak’s sister serves on active duty in the Air Force. Krysiak was assigned to the Bonney Lake Food Bank, where she helps to pack food and make home deliveries. “We’re helping out the community and that’s what matters,” said Krysiak. “Everybody has been impacted by COVID. We don’t know their situation, and we can’t judge. We can only imagine what they could be going through.”

Krysiak has seen the impact of her work on community members. “It’s cool to see people come in and say thank you for everything that we do,” said Krysiak.

For Airman Sara Mark, the opportunity to serve at the Nourish Pierce County warehouse in her hometown of Lakewood came as she awaits technical training to be a personnel specialist in the 194th Force Support Squadron. With reduced hours in her civilian job, it worked well for her to join the Guard’s food bank mission. “I did want to help out the community during this pandemic,” said Mark. “A lot of people can’t afford food, so it’s nice to be a helping hand.”

Eric Cunningham of Shelton enlisted in the Washington Air National Guard over the summer to become a member of the 194th Security Forces Flight. Two years out of high school, Cunningham works in a construction job, but he was able to take on a role with the Guard at a food packing facility in Lakewood shortly after swearing into the military. Cunningham works with other members of the 194th Wing to make boxes that are used for packing. “We make 2,000 boxes a day, which is 40 pallets worth,” said Cunningham. “We’re pretty efficient I’d say.”

Cunningham said he sees value in his time on state active duty as he prepares for formal training. “It helps me get more involved with the military before I go to basic military training,” said Cunningham. One advantage of interacting with Airmen who have already been through training is that they can give advice on his next steps in military service, he said.

During their time on State Active Duty, student flight members work alongside experienced Air National Guard members who are designated to guide them. “It’s good Air Force mentorship,” said Austin. “They are getting good experience that they would not otherwise have. They’re learning to work in a team environment. They’re learning about joint relationships with the Army.”

Student flight members mention teamwork as a highlight of their service experience. “Even though we’re in different branches, it’s nice being part of a team,” said Mark. “I like the emphasis on teamwork,” said Cunningham. And even though student flight members have just begun their journey in military service, they are already being integrated into a domestic operations mission. “I feel included,” said Krysiak. “I don’t wear the uniform, but I’m still a part of them.”

Altogether, Washington National Guard members have taken part in processing, packaging, and distributing more than 45 million pounds of food since the start of the COVID-19 emergency. For Austin, the work that members of his student flight are performing is at the heart of why the Guard exists. “This is what the National Guard is about, to help out our community by jumping in early, getting fully organized,” said Austin.

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