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In historic year, Washington National Guard answers the call

Staff Sgt. Melinda Grounds, a medic with the 141st Medical Group and a registered nurse in Idaho, goes through a questionnaire with a visitor to the mass vaccination site at the Clark County Fairgrounds in Ridgefield, Wash., Jan. 28, 2021. The Washington National Guard is helping at four vaccination sites.

Staff Sgt. Melinda Grounds, a medic with the 141st Medical Group and a registered nurse in Idaho, goes through a questionnaire with a visitor to the mass vaccination site at the Clark County Fairgrounds in Ridgefield, Wash., Jan. 28, 2021. The Washington National Guard is helping at four vaccination sites.

The year 2020 was anything but ordinary for the Washington National Guard, which supported an unprecedented response to the COVID-19 pandemic and state emergencies.

The year 2020 was anything but ordinary for the Washington National Guard, which supported an unprecedented response to the COVID-19 pandemic and state emergencies.

CAMP MURRAY, Wash. – To describe 2020 as unprecedented would be an understatement.

"This past year has been a trying year," said Washington National Guard Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, the adjutant general. "We not only continue to support the COVID mission, we were called up for two of the worst civil unrest rounds in our state's history, we saw wildfires spread in eastern and western Washington, had cyberattack attempts against our state network and still deployed 1,000 Guardsmen overseas on federal deployments."

When Washington state announced the nation's first confirmed case of COVID-19 in late January, no one could have imagined what we were in for. Several weeks later, following the first COVID-19 death and a growing case count, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state would close non-essential businesses and schools.

With people out of work, the need for food assistance increased exponentially. At the same time, volunteers who typically operate food banks were told to stay home, as many fall within the at-risk population for COVID-19.

In March 2020, Washington National Guard personnel accepted their first mission, staffing numerous food banks across the state.

"With so many food banks needing assistance, we activated our Guardsmen to help man the food banks, as demand increased," said Daugherty. "We then moved from just food banks to helping distribute personal protective equipment, transporting ventilators and beds and staffed COVID-19 testing locations."

By June, more than 1,000 Guard members were supporting the state's COVID-19 response. In addition to working at food banks, Guardsmen assisted the Department of Health with mapping the spread of the virus and assembling test kits. Personnel also assisted the Employment Security Division by verifying unemployment claims, ensuring Washingtonians received their unemployment benefits.

"We had Guardsmen working in a number of different roles in the COVID-19 response, and every place we went, I would hear the same thing: how amazing our Airmen and Soldiers were doing," said Daugherty.

In June, the Washington National Guard was thrust into another mission, as civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd awoke racial tensions across America. Peaceful protests provided cover for unlawful actors who stirred up violence, leading to nightly riots in Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane. More than 1,500 Guardsmen were activated to support law enforcement officers in regaining peace.

"Our Soldiers and Airmen were prepared for whatever would come, be it peaceful or violent," said Sgt. Maj. Travis Wise, operations noncommissioned officer during the activation. "We reminded them that these people are our neighbors, family and friends. We are here serving so they can freely protest; we were doing the right thing."

As the summer started with civil disturbances, the season ended with the Guard supporting the Washington Department of Natural Resources on multiple wildfires across the state. More than 50 Guardsmen traveled to Davenport to assist on the Whitney Fire, while helicopter crews dropped water on the Palmer, Evans Canyon, Mima and Sumner Grade fires.

"We have people that actively volunteer to support the firefighting mission," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Travis Marzolf, a pilot with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 140th Aviation. "This is why they are in the Guard; because these missions are important."

While the Guard worked to put out fires, Airmen with the 262nd Cyberspace Operations Squadron began providing additional security to the state's election system.

"This is the same type of support we provided in 2016, adding that extra layer of protection for the secretary of state's office," said Lt. Col. Thomas Pries, the commander of the 262nd Cyberspace Operations Squadron.

"This was seamless teamwork between the Guard, the secretary of state and the governor's office," said Pries. "No one involved wanted anything but an accurate and fair election."

After a tense election that was overshadowed by accusations of voter fraud, a violent mob overtook the U.S. Capitol as the election results were being certified. In the state, a group of protesters breached the perimeter of the governor's mansion in Olympia. Over the next few weeks, 600 members of the Guard were activated to protect the state capitol in Olympia as the state Legislature began its 2021 session and 400 headed to the nation's capital, joining 25,000 Guardsmen from across the country to support the presidential inauguration.

"I cannot tell you how proud I am of the amazing work our men and women did in support of the Washington State Patrol," said Daugherty. "They helped protect our democracy and showed that when we as a nation and state called, our team was ready to answer."

At the same time, the work continued to support the state's COVID-19 mission, and a glimmer of hope began to appear as multiple vaccinations were approved for emergency use. More than 150 Guardsmen joined health care professionals and teams from the Department of Health operating four mass vaccination sites and a mobile team in the state.

"I am just very impressed that they were able to hit the ground running and figure it out in just a couple of days," said Daugherty during a visit to the Kennewick vaccination site. "Our Guardsmen have shown in the last year that we are always up to the challenge to help our state and nation."

Between the state's COVID-19 response, civil disturbances, wildfires and election security, more than 3,000 members of the Guard were activated in the last year to support Washingtonians at home. There were also numerous overseas deployments. In October 2019, more than 400 members of the 1st Squadron, 303rd Cavalry Regiment, deployed to Jordan to support Operation Spartan Shield. That deployment was the first in a line of mobilizations that saw 1,000 Guardsmen head to numerous countries in the Middle East and Europe.

"We not only deployed more than 1,000 in the past year; we are sending another 1,500 overseas this year," said Daugherty. "We recently sent nearly 200 from our Chinook units to Kuwait."

In the coming months, the Washington National Guard will say farewell to more than 100 Guardsmen from the 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team headquarters as they deploy to support a multinational training mission in Ukraine. This spring, more than 850 Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen will deploy as part of a multinational NATO mission to Poland.

"We continue to deploy our small teams from the 56th Theater Information Operations Group, our larger units from the 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, our Army and Air National Guard aviation crews and so many other smaller missions around the world," said Daugherty. "This year has been nothing short of historic."

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