#InThisTogether: Ohio’s COVID-19 response mission marks first comprehensive activation of state military assets
Story by 1st Lt. Kevin Livingston, Ohio National Guard Public Affairs
COLUMBUS, Ohio (07/23/20)
The Ohio National Guard’s support during the COVID-19 pandemic has established a historic first for the organization. Operation Steady Resolve, the name given to the Guard’s pandemic response mission, marks the first time Ohio’s Army and Air Guard members have been activated alongside a contingent of the State Defense Force, which includes the Ohio Military Reserve and Ohio Naval Militia.
Unlike their federally recognized counterparts, the Ohio Military Reserve (OHMR) and Ohio Naval Militia (ONM) are all-volunteer forces exclusively under state jurisdiction. When needed, members of the State Defense Force may be activated under state law to respond to emergencies.
Joint Task Force FOX (JTF FOX) comprises all the Ohio National Guard and State Defense Force personnel who are on duty in support of Operation Steady Resolve. When possible, task force personnel have been assigned to missions that best match their military occupation or civilian career skills and experience.
Army National Guard Capt. Stephen Allerding, a human resources officer assigned to the 371st Sustainment Brigade, is responsible for managing all personnel actions for approximately 900 Ohio Soldiers, Airmen, Military Reservists and Naval Militia members on duty. Allerding brings joint operations experience from his 2011 Afghanistan deployment to his position within the headquarters element of JTF FOX.
While a joint task force presents a unique set of challenges to any mission, Allerding said that a joint element’s effectiveness can increase when conducting a large-scale operation like Operation Steady Resolve.
“It is complex, but that is what a headquarters is for, as the command and control element,” Allerding said. “We’re all here for the same mission, and when issues arise, we can draw strengths from each other. If there is an Army issue, maybe the Air Force or OHMR has the solution, and vice versa.”
One of Operation Steady Resolve’s largest missions has been providing operational support to 14 regional food warehouses and local food banks, which combined serve all 88 Ohio counties. Many food bank sites’ supporting military staff has been a full integration of Army, Air and OHMR personnel. More than 400 Guard and OHMR members were initially activated under Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s order to assist with the rising demand for food bank services due to economic challenges, including increased unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, food banks across the state faced personnel shortages as their traditional volunteer pool consisted largely of retired senior citizens, who happen to also be the most vulnerable population for contracting COVID-19.
OHMR Master Sgt. Michael Johnson is the noncommissioned officer in charge of the drive-thru distribution at the Mid-Ohio Foodbank in Grove City, Ohio. As a logistician, Johnson has been essential in redefining the food bank’s Point of Distribution, or POD, operations to enhance the overall productivity and efficiency of food drive-thru events throughout the 20-county region supported by Mid-Ohio Foodbank.
Johnson and his team have spent countless hours sorting fresh produce, nonperishables and even treats to ensure Ohio families have the food they need to make it through every week. He said that operating with such a diverse force has been flawless, and that everyone seems to have the same drive and determination to serve their friends and neighbors, no matter what uniform they are wearing. Johnson said he thinks the food bank support has been most visible and meaningful mission showcasing the Ohio National Guard’s commitment to its citizens.
“You don’t always have to pick up a rifle; you can push a shopping cart full of food and improve somebody’s life,” Johnson said.
Another important Operation Steady Resolve mission includes the storage and transport of critical personal protective equipment, commonly referred to by its acronym of PPE. Air National Guard Senior Airman Haleigh Veeley currently serves at the receive, stage and store (RSS) site in Groveport, Ohio, under the direction of the Ohio Department of Health and in conjunction with the Ohio Emergency Management Agency. She and her fellow personnel on the mission fulfill requests for PPE from the state’s 88 counties quickly and accurately, ensuring hospitals and other medical entities have the tools to combat the virus while keeping medical professionals and Ohioans safe.
As a heavy equipment operator with an engineering unit, Veeley eagerly accepted the opportunity to serve her fellow Ohioans in the state’s time of need, even if it didn’t fully match up with her military job training and skills.
“At the time (Ohio University, where she attends college) had switched to semesters online, and the restaurant I was working at was takeout only,” Veeley said. “My chief (military supervisor) called and said they needed people. I knew I could do it, so I showed up the next day and went right to work.”
Veeley says that although her RSS site is staffed by only Air National Guard personnel, they coordinate with Army National Guard members for administrative functions, as well as the distribution and transport of PPE. With this being her first mission working alongside other components the Ohio National Guard, Veeley said she was grateful for all those serving — the joint operations have not only positively impacted her career, but also are helping the citizens of Ohio.
Many of Operations Steady Resolve’s missions have not been directly related to combating COVID-19 itself. Perhaps the most direct effort during the Ohio National Guard’s COVID-19 response has been the activation of Task Force Medical (TF MED). Partnering with the Ohio Department of Health and dozens of local government agencies, TF MED oversees nearly 300 personnel across about 25 testing sites daily.
ONM Chief Petty Officer Robert Mowry has been serving on one of the 12-person COVID-19 mobile testing teams, which have been traveling all over the state collecting samples from thousands of Ohioans, including at congregate care facilities such as nursing homes.
“We get our assignments the day before, and it could be anywhere in Ohio,” Mowry said. “We can do two or three sites a day, turn everything into the lab, go home, and try to sleep to be ready to start it all over again tomorrow.”
Mowry brings diverse joint task force experience from multiple deployments as a member of the U.S. Navy. Like many members of the OHMR and ONM, Mowry joined the State Defense Force after he left active duty. As a Navy hospital corpsman, he said he missed the comradery of his fellow Sailors and jumped at the chance to continue serving in uniform. Whether it was working with personnel in uniform, or with civilians from various partner agencies, he complimented everyone’s professionalism and teamwork when it came to overcoming obstacles during the testing mission.
“The integration with the Military Reserve, Air Guard, Army Guard and now, Naval Militia, was seamless,” Johnson said. “There is a lot of respect and forged relationships from all we have faced while battling COVID-19. Just the fact that (Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the outgoing chief of the National Guard Bureau, who visited the state in May) came to Ohio to see how we are working together says a lot about our service and the unknown assets of the OHMR and Naval Militia.”
All four components of the Ohio National Guard have proven to add value and vast experience to the COVID-19 response. Despite what makes them different, Allerding said each component embodies the same philosophy toward serving their fellow Ohioans — ensuring their neighbors remain fed, healthy and safe during these uncertain times.
“Someone may see me in uniform today, but when the missions end, they’ll see me back in civilian clothes alongside them,” he said. “We are serving for them; it’s why we are Citizen-Soldiers.”