FREDERICKSBURG, Va. - Army Staff Sgt. Scott Andrews, a squad leader with the Virginia Army National Guard’s B Company, 229th Brigade Engineer Battalion, approached a group of Soldiers from his unit as they packed food in a warehouse.
“Who here is reliable?” he asked.
All the Soldiers instantly raised their hands, as some laughed at the question.
Then Andrews posed the next question – a potential deal-breaker.
“OK, who here has legible handwriting?”
About half the hands came down, with everybody laughing this time, including Andrews, who was looking for a few Soldiers to log notes about the items they were packing.
His joking manner was his way of keeping the Soldiers in high spirits as they supported COVID-19 response efforts by augmenting civilian personnel at a food bank.
“I try to keep it fun with them,” he said. “You gotta keep the morale up. We are here for 30 days and they all want to be here, but at the same time, they are away from home, away from their families and so you got to keep morale up.”
The unit’s food bank support involved organizing, packaging and distributing food items to people who need it using a drive-thru assembly line setup.
“So what we are doing is allowing them to stay in their vehicles just like a drive-thru,” said Spc. Josh Canales, a combat engineer with Company A, 229th BEB. “They pull up, and we distribute all the food.”
The food distribution mission, he said, is similar to his civilian work environment at an online retailer.
“I make sure all the orders are together,” said Canales. “So I am on my feet, but it’s just a lot of looking at a screen.”
Working at the food bank with his unit, however, involved less computer screen time and more interaction with other Soldiers during the duty day.
“Without communication, our job doesn’t get done,” Canales said. “There are a lot of moving parts in here. You have to know where to be and what to do and communication just allows that to go [smoothly].”
He also said his civilian experience made him appreciate inventory management when working at the food bank.
“It’s awesome making sure that everything is a step ahead,” said Canales. “So if anything gets sidetracked, like a mass rush of cars, we [still] have it all.”
Food distribution also meant interacting in a positive way with those needing assistance, said Spc. Casey Weaver, a military intelligence specialist with D Company, 229th BEB.
“Positivity reflects on the people we are interacting with,” she said.
Weaver added that one particular segment of the public seems to reciprocate positive energy the most.
“The old ladies are my favorite,” she said, adding many will honk their horns in appreciation of the Army Guard members. “They really love it. They really get into it.”
Interacting with the public, Weaver said, is something she thrives on. In her civilian job, she works in the hospitality industry.
“I am a people person and I like being around people, [and] with my civilian job, we do a lot of organizing, and that definitely translates into what we are doing out here,” she said.
Andrews, the squad leader, said that soon after his unit began the food distribution mission, it became evident that changes would have to be made.
“The first day we got out here, we helped load a few cars, and we’re like ‘OK, this [isn’t] that bad of a mission,’” Andrews said.
Demand increased substantially on the second day, however, as he and his unit loaded more than 800 cars in three hours with just 15 Soldiers.
“That’s a lot of work, so we needed more manpower on the ground to do it,” said Andrews.
But providing that additional support, he said, wouldn’t be an issue.
“These [Soldiers] are motivated to come in and help,” said Andrews. “It inspires me to make sure they are well taken care of while they are out here.”
Though he has supported response efforts involving a hurricane and snowstorms, Andrews said distributing food to those who need it can be just as jaw-dropping.
“It’s an eye-opener,” he said. “Until you do it for the first time, you don’t see how much you impact your community.”
Canales, the combat engineer, added that being a part of the food distribution mission brings an extra sense of service to the community.
“I am glad I am [here], just helping people out and serving the community,” he said. “And to know that just because there are bad things happening, good things are coming out of it.”