MARIETTA, Ga. – The Georgia National Guard deployed more than 2,600 Soldiers and Airmen in support of military operations and training around the world in 2019. Now in 2020, many of these service members serve a different kind of mission – to fight the COVID-19 virus.
Typically in a reset state after coming home from deployment, many members of the Georgia Guard are instead working around the clock in the communities where they work and live by disinfecting long-term health facilities, increasing the state’s testing capacity, and helping at food banks and hospitals.
Cpl. John Rader, a combat engineer assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 201st Regional Support Group, deployed to Iraq from August 2018 to April 2019. Less than a year after returning from Iraq, he mobilized in response to COVID-19.
Rader’s team led project management for one of the most heavily constructed bases in Iraq during the 2018-2019 deployment. They built wastewater treatment plants and houses and lined roads with protective barriers.
In the COVID-19 response effort, Rader serves in the 201st RSG operations center at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, where he tracks missions across the state.
Some of the tracking systems Rader’s team uses were designed during the deployment and tailored by his team for use during the COVID-19 response. These products improve communication and interoperability by helping key leaders maintain awareness and better assess the situation. He said the COVID response mission is new to his unit, but members are learning and adapting every day.
“All my neighbors reach out and we get a lot of thanks,” said Rader. “I live in the area of operations that we’re cleaning nursing homes in. Our guys have already cleaned the nursing homes that my neighbor’s parents live in. It’s a meaningful line of work. It makes you proud to let your neighbors or your family know what you do.”
Georgia Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Diane Piedrahita, an emergency management specialist assigned to the 165th Civil Engineering Squadron, was activated to serve at the Emergency Operations Center in Savannah in early March for the COVID-19 response.
Piedrahita deployed to Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan with the 165th CES in July 2019 and returned in January 2020. Overseas, she served in the operations section of emergency management. She tracked weather and intelligence information, conducted training using mission-oriented protective posture (MOPP) gear, bunker training and Emergency Operations Center training to prepare for potential missions. Now she’s applying the lessons learned from the deployment to the COVID-19 response effort.
“It’s a good experience because we get to work with the medical teams, which is what I’m studying,” said Piedrahita. “We usually don’t get to work with them as we respond to natural or manmade disasters, so responding to a pandemic is a new experience. This is a new one to add to the mission set and we’re getting better at the mission every day.”
Since returning home, Piedrahita continues serving in the 165th CES in the operations section tracking teams while they conduct missions across the state. Piedrahita is also a post-graduate student at Georgia Southern University studying for her master’s degree in public health with a focus on epidemiology.
The Georgia Army National Guard’s newest unit, 1st Battalion, 54th Security Forces Assistance Brigade headquartered at Fort Benning, activated Soldiers to support the COVID-19 response mission as well.
Georgia Army National Guard Sgt. Quantez Harper, a 68W Combat Medic assigned to Company B, 1- 54th SFAB, mobilized to fight COVID-19 after returning at the end of 2019 from a deployment to Afghanistan.
Harper has served in the Army National Guard for 12 years, which includes three overseas deployments. In the COVID-19 response effort, he applies his medical training and experience by serving in a medical support team deployed to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany.
“It’s tough,” said Harper. “Especially leaving a 10-month old and fiancé, but at the end of the day, this is what we do. You learn to take the energy and use it as motivation to help others. Being here in Albany where there was such a national spotlight and knowing that we are here doing good things to help this community really drives my passion to be here. Being a part of something bigger and doing some good in the world is my motivation.”