SEATTLE – As a Washington Air National Guard member finishes building a cardboard box, an assembly line of other Airmen fill it with non-perishable food. The work is straightforward but essential to the COVID-19 statewide emergency response.
Nearly 50 Airmen from the 141st Air Refueling Wing, 194th Wing and Western Air Defense Sector started the mission April 20. They are part of a group of more than 250 Washington National Guard members working at the Food Lifeline warehouse.
Amythst Shipman, Food Lifeline director of operations strategy, had never worked with the National Guard and didn’t know what to expect, but her organization needed help due to the loss of volunteer labor.
“Before our National Guard partnership started on Monday, we had to make the really hard decision to shut down our volunteer program due to social distancing requirements, concerns volunteers were having about their own personal safety and health,” she said. “Our volunteer numbers dropped to nearly nothing as a result of COVID.”
Donations also plummeted while the need doubled from 800,000 people to 1.6 million people in the 17 counties in western Washington that Food Lifeline serves, Shipman said.
“Being able to call the National Guard has completely opened that food stream back up ... to meet the need in western Washington.”
Staff Sgt. Matthew Bradley, a Western Air Defense Sector Airman training to become a surveillance technician, said the group’s military training contributed to them packing more than 200,000 pounds of food the first full day of work.
“They actually tell us to slow down because we’re moving so fast. That’s just part of our work ethic,” Bradley said.
Shipman said her staff and volunteers produced 70 boxes per hour per line during initial trials. National Guard members are producing an average of 268 boxes per line per hour.
“They are blowing all of my metrics out of the water,” she said.
In four days of work, the Guard packed 556,480 pounds of food, said Maj. Kenneth Reiley, the officer in charge at the site and S1 for the Washington Army National Guard’s 205th Regional Training Institute Headquarters.
“We have consistently been able to overcome backlogs and complete tasks, delivering additional food to those in need,” Reiley said. “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to serve our community and make a difference to those in need.”
One of the senior enlisted members at the site compared the experience to a past deployment.
“You look at any mission, there are so many enablers,” said Senior Master Sgt. Mark Conrad, a regional force support liaison for FEMA Region 10 at the Headquarters Washington Air National Guard.
“There are a few actual warfighters and everything else is a support or logistics piece of enabling that mission,” he said. “This is a huge enabling mission here to go out and deliver supplies to other food banks and those in need ... and we’re fighting an enemy, COVID.”
Senior Master Sgt. Bruce Perkins, the 194th Wing’s safety superintendent, said he was impressed by the team camaraderie and adherence to safety measures.
“People are taking safety to heart. We have three production lines. ... Some people are working on the left side, and then they swap to the right side because they don’t want their left side to hurt,” Perkins said. “That’s taking safety to the next level.”
With the operation running smoothly and more families fed, Shipman reflected on her experience with the Washington National Guard.
“I have been just completely blown away by the high-level productivity, the really clear communication, the way that your leadership operates ... and then down to everybody who’s on-site has just been incredible to work with,” Shipman said.
Statewide, nearly 500 Guard members are supporting more than 40 food banks and distribution centers for the COVID-19 statewide emergency food response. They are part of a nationwide National Guard force of more than 43,700 troops helping respond to the pandemic.