Kentucky Guardsmen balance civilian employment with COVID-19 activation

Spc. Robert Acosta directs traffic at Lexington’s drive-through testing site. The site is part of Kentucky’s efforts to increase COVID-19 testing rates throughout the state. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Crane)

By Maj. Gus LaFontaine, Joint Force Headquarters,

FRANKFORT, Ky. — The Kentucky National Guard has been called upon to lend hands to numerous agencies in response to this coronavirus pandemic and over 800 Soldiers and Airmen have responded to help.

Many have left their jobs to step up and fill the gap to aid their fellow citizens who have found themselves in need during this unprecedented time.  

Robert Acosta has played the clarinet for more than 20 years. Currently, he is pursuing his master’s degree in music performance at the University of Louisville. In mid-March his schooling was interrupted due to the COVID-19 virus.

Acosta also serves as an Army musician in the 202nd Band of the Kentucky Army National Guard. Less than a week after his schooling ended, he was activated to serve as part of the Kentucky National Guard’s mobilization of more than 750 Soldiers and Airmen in support of emergency response efforts to the coronavirus pandemic.

“When we were called up I immediately wanted to help out in any way I could. This is what I signed up for. This is what I wanted to do. There was some excitement but there was also some uncertainty about what the mission would be.”

Acosta is serving at a drive-through testing site. The sites, spearheaded by Kroger Health, administered more than 5,000 coronavirus tests during the final week of April. In addition to the testing sites, Kentucky Guardsmen have served at local food banks, provided site security, sorted personal protective equipment at state warehouses, and constructed and staffed an alternate care facility that is capable of serving up to 2,000 patients at the Louisville Expo Center.

Maj. John Rock conducts planning operations at Boone National Guard Center in Frankfort, Ky. on May 12, 2020. Rock also serves as a middle school assistant principal in Jefferson County Public Schools. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Nasir Stoner)

Sgt. Cason Nelson is a field artilleryman in the Kentucky Army National Guard. Additionally, he serves as a lifeguard at The Home of the Innocents, a community center for at-risk children and other vulnerable populations, in Louisville. Nelson was recently stationed at a Norton’s Children’s Hospital as a response to Governor Beshear’s desire to provide an “extra calming presence” at hospital sites.   

“It was nice to be visible in the communities so that citizens knew that we were out there, on the lines, and with them.”

Nelson said the ability to serve is especially meaningful to him. He referenced an experience a co-worker had with the National Guard.

“I had a co-worker whose sister-in-law went into labor during the snow storm of 1994. It was a National Guard Humvee that transported her to the hospital to deliver.”

He added, “This is why you join the National Guard, so you can serve your community. That was a big part of why I enlisted in the National Guard.”

Phil Miller, state chairman for the Kentucky committee of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, says Guard members are integral parts of their community.

“The Guard was designed to be a community-based force. In all 120 Kentucky counties, the county judges know that they can count on the Guard in times of emergency. The people of Kentucky have learned that as well.”

Staff Sgt. Cody Hensley of Burlington led a team of National Guardsmen at Bourbon Community Hospital in Paris. Hensley normally works for Spectrum as a construction coordinator for fiber and coaxial lines. He spoke about the value of having Soldiers on his team that were from Paris.

“One of our soldiers went to school with some of the local police officers. It helps to break the ice. We built relationships with local law enforcement, Kentucky State Police, and hospital staff. They were really great people.”

As a part-time force the National Guard is represented by Soldiers and Airmen from a variety of civilian professions. Miller discussed the value of adding that professional experience to the Guard force.

Airman 1st Class Elijah Lamastus, an emergency medical technician at the Bowling Green Medical Center, recently left his civilian employment to serve as an aerospace medical technician for the 123rd Medical Group Detachment 1 at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center in Louisville, Ky., April 13, 2020. Lamastus is currently working at an alternate care facility here, designed to assist patients recovering from COVID-19. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Chloe Ochs)

Miller said, “Looking at the civilian expertise that they bring with them; it’s a force multiplier in itself.” They develop a sense of analytical thinking that brings into play perspectives that they could only get from working outside the military.” Miller added, “Their management expertise in many cases in their civilian capacity may be greater than what they are tasked to do in their military capacity.”

Major John Rock, of the Kentucky Army National Guard, is a 24-year employee of Jefferson County Public Schools and has served in administration for 18 years. He currently serves as an assistant principal at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Louisville. Rock has been activated in support of COVID-19 relief operations.

“You wonder if what you’re doing is making a difference. Time will tell. You want to see results immediately. This isn’t that type of situation. There is a prolonged period of time before you see if your efforts are fruitful.”

He compared his work with the Kentucky National Guard’s response efforts to COVID-19 with his work in Jefferson County schools.

“Working with kids, it’s also a work in progress. You may not get results at the end of the day or the end of the week but over the course of time you hope to see progress with your students.”

Rock continued, “Kids may come back in four or five years and say that school is what made a difference in their life. It’s one of those things that you stay the course because you know it’s the right thing to do. Whether it’s in here during COVID response or it’s working with kids. You may not win the battle but you’re going to win the war. You stay with it.”

Employers of Guardsmen share the challenges that accompany a disaster response.

Hensley’s employer is ready for his return.

“They are ready for me to be back. At the same time they told me to take my time, and that they’d take care of everything. They assured me that they’ll be ready for me when I got back.

Kentucky Air National Guardsmen, Airman 1st Class Elijah Lamastus, is experiencing the same circumstances. He serves as an emergency medical technician (EMT) for the Bowling Green Medical Center. Lamastus also serves as an aerospace medical technician for the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Medical Group. He says that his civilian employment is ready for him to return.

“As soon as this mobilization ends, I’m going right back to work however, I’m grateful for this opportunity to serve. As an EMT I get to help the citizens of Bowling Green and as an Airman in the Air National Guard I get to help the citizens of Kentucky.”

Rock acknowledged the efforts of his coworkers during his activation.

He said, “Sometimes it’s forgotten I’ve got coworkers back at school that have picked up what I normally do because I am here. I think that sometimes those people are forgotten. I am very fortunate because I’ve got some great people that I work with that can slide into that role.

Rock added that in addition to coworkers, families likewise carry the load when a Soldier or Airmen is activated.

“I know my family is picking up things that I can’t do because I am sent here. I think your family and coworkers sometimes get forgotten. They pick up what you can’t do because you’ve been asked to do this and I think sometimes we take this for granted.”

Acosta acknowledged that team effort during emergency activations of the National Guard.

Acosta said, “The reason I joined the Army was to be part of something bigger. I want to serve Kentucky well. We’re all on the same team here and fighting the same fight.”

*Soldiers and Airmen may acknowledge exceptional performance of supervisors or employers for a series of Department of Defense awards by submitting their nomination at www.esgr.mil

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