GLEN GARDNER, N.J. – This is a war that has no front line. From the hospitals to the home front, the coronavirus has truly made this a global war.
“This mission made me open my eyes to the idea that we’re not always going to be fighting an enemy that’s in a uniform with a gun,” said Sgt. Michael Demayo, culinary noncommissioned officer, Foxtrot Company, 250th Brigade Support Battalion (BSB), New Jersey Army National Guard. “It could be a virus hitting our communities.”
Demayo is part of a team of five New Jersey Army National Guard Soldiers from the 250th and three New Jersey Air National Guard Airmen – two from the 108th Wing and one from the 177th Fighter Wing – assisting the Veterans Haven North kitchen staff.
Veterans Haven North, operated by the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, is a transitional housing facility for homeless veterans that provides its residents with long-term rehabilitation services and employment training.
“We were fortunate to get two teams of cooks,” said Edward J. Chrystal Jr., superintendent, Veterans Haven North. “We’ve had them working different shifts and have been fully integrated into our staff.”
The Citizen-Soldiers work the morning shift while the Citizen-Airmen work the afternoon shift.
“We’ve been doing a lot of cooking, a lot of prepping, cleaning, unloading and storing food,” said Spc. Joseph Valencia, a culinary specialist with the 250th BSB.
Valencia, who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, has been with the 250th for seven years. “The reason I joined was to serve my country.”
Since April 13, wherever there was a need in the kitchen, a Guard member was there to make sure the job got done.
And the size of that job: 2,400 meals a day for the Haven’s 67 residents and the 430 residents at the Hunterdon Developmental Center.
The center, which is six miles from Veterans Haven North, provides behavioral, medical and habilitation services to women and men with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Every day, the kitchen staff prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner for delivery to the center’s residents.
“I don’t think we would’ve been able to do what we’re doing without them,” said Al Hanby, food services supervisor, Veterans Haven North. “With our staffing shortage, we wouldn’t have been able to do 2,400 meals a day.”
“Get the job done, that’s the priority,” said Tech. Sgt. Juan Ogando Rivera, services specialist, 177th Services Flight, New Jersey Air National Guard.
For Spc. Kyla Bowman, who returned from basic military training in December, it’s about putting her skills as a culinary specialist to work.
“This makes me a better Soldier because I’m actually using what I learned in training here.”
The members of the Guard had an additional impact when the COVID-19 response began.
“All of our employees, like everyone, were fearful going outside of their homes,” said Chrystal. “The Soldiers and Airmen, just the presence of the uniform and the confidence of the work being done, built up the morale of the kitchen staff.”
The New Jersey National Guard has more than 800 Soldiers and Airmen activated to support state and local leaders.
“I joined the Guard to help out people,” said Airman 1st Class Daphne Gojo Cruz, services specialist, 108th Services Flight, New Jersey Air National Guard. “I’m honored to help out the veterans here.”
In a Facebook comment, Meagan Smickle, head cook at Veterans Haven North, said to Cruz’s mother: “We are honored to have her, and her fellow National Guard members at our facility. They are truly a blessing!! And pretty awesome people!”
The Soldiers and Airmen are on orders through May 30 although, with the nature of the pandemic, that is subject to change.
“The staff here really appreciates us, they talk about wanting to keep us here permanently,” said Demayo.
“Everybody is very appreciative and definitely sees what the National Guard does for the community firsthand,” said Chrystal.