Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt activated 175 members of the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard this week, to help support the state response to COVID-19.
The newly activated Service members will perform several missions in support of the 11 identified COVID-19 regional health administration locations in the state.
“The governor has authorized 175 Soldiers and Airmen into the COVID-19 response in direct support of his number one objective, which is ensuring that Oklahomans are taken care of during the COVID-19 outbreak,” Oklahoma Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Tommy Mancino, commander of the Governor’s Solution Task Force said, April 13.
The Guardsmen will not be performing the testing at the state-run testing sites, but rather, will provide and restock personal protective equipment and tests, as well as act as couriers for completed test kits.
“We also have 35 Soldiers working at the Strategic National Stockpile, where we'll be ensuring that those personal protective items are available as needed throughout the state,” Mancino said.
Oklahoma Army National Guard Col. Robert Henry Walter Jr., Oklahoma Joint Task Force commander, said Soldiers at the Strategic National Stockpile are serving as additional manning for the center and will assist with collecting orders for personal protective equipment (or PPE) from the 11 health administration locations and other facilities, packaging the orders for shipment, and arranging transportation.
“So that's an around-the-clock operation we're assisting with right now — to make sure that there's PPE going to everybody that needs it,” said Walter. “Because we have a lot of PPE, it’s just [a matter of] getting it out there. Making sure everyone has it is the the number one focus."
Oklahoma National Guardsmen, assigned to their Joint Task Force, are also acting as planners for mission. The JTF works alongside the Governor’s Solution Task Force to ensure their Soldiers and Airmen are taken care of while serving the state, but also report timely, accurate numbers to the Governor to form educated responses.
Within the Oklahoma Joint Task Force, Service members not only bring the experience from their military careers, but also their experience from their civilian jobs as Citizen Soldiers and Airmen. For example, many people handling the logistics of the Oklahoma National Guard’s movements and numbers are also healthcare workers and administrators, emergency management professionals, and firemen.
“We use [that knowledge] here to interface with the other agencies in the state,” said Walter. “There's a lot of people that have a lot of different skill sets… So we put them to work. And it's very helpful because, we’re not just one-sided — we're multi dimensional — and we can provide a better response because of that.”
The Soldiers and Airmen will be activated for at least 31 days and will be more visible to the citizens of Oklahoma as the response to COVID-19 progresses.
With the primary mission of serving Oklahomans and the healthcare workers on the frontlines, Walter emphasized that Guardsmen are here for Oklahomans.
"We're not here to do anything else other than take care of Oklahomans,” said Walter. “That's the governor's number one priority, and that's our number one priority, because we're Oklahomans. Our families are being affected by this as well as us. So we're not only responders, but we're also [aided by] the response.”
Mancino related the Oklahoma National Guard’s COVID-19 response to past domestic responses most Oklahomans are familiar with.
“This is exactly similar to situations in which the community has seen Airmen and Soldiers in the past as they respond to tornadoes and floods and other emergencies in the state of Oklahoma,” Mancino said. “The Service members are your neighbors, and they're here to help.”
Though the current focus is serving Oklahomans through this pandemic, the Oklahoma National Guard remains ready for any other state responses that may develop as well.
"There's the steady state missions that we do over on the side — which is earth, wind and fire — and then there's also this pandemic that we’re responding to,” said Walter. “So, really we have two planning missions and response missions, but it will be seamless because it's going to be the same people doing both. It won't degrade our response in either one of them, because we have plenty of people that we can bring on to assist.”
According to several models from the Governor’s team, the 175 Service members could be enough to support the state for the duration of its COVID-19 response. However, the Oklahoma National Guard remains vigilant, should addition resources be needed.
“We may have other opportunities for service that may come up in the future,” said Mancino. “We stand ready to support. Our motto is, ‘Always ready, always there,’ and we intend to do just that.”