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News | May 7, 2021

Heavy Mettle

By Staff Sgt. Charles Johnston

It’s been over a year since Gov. Chris Sununu chose the New Hampshire National Guard as his state champion.

COVID-19 has been a formidable foe. But the battle is turning.

“The size and duration of this activation has been unprecedented,” said NH Adjutant Gen. David Mikolaities. “It truly reflects on the next greatest generation and their ability to help their community, state and nation.”

About 1,260 guardsmen have served on Task Force Granite, the state’s makeshift pandemic response force.

But as more Granite Staters become vaccinated, support missions are drawing to an end. Many guardsmen have returned to their civilian jobs. About 660 NH Guard soldiers and airmen remain on orders supporting four lines of effort.

“When you’re taking soldiers and airmen from their employers for an extended period of time, it has a rippling effect on the individual, their family and their employer,” Mikolaities said.

The New Hampshire Guard was first thrust onto the front lines in March of 2020. Activations rose steadily. At its peak, nearly 30 percent of the NHNG was called up. Across the 54 states and territories, that’s an estimated five times the average, Mikolaities said.

With each passing month, missions expanded and multiplied.

Guardsmen built alternate care facilities to augment hospitals, staffed food pantries, call centers, test sites and led vaccination efforts. Massive shipments of personal protective equipment were warehoused and distributed. They even tilled soil and planted crops for NH Food Bank.

As resources were taxed, non-COVID crises emerged. Contingents of NH guardsmen were sent to quell local civil unrest and fight West Coast wildfires. Other units deployed to the Southwest Border, Middle East and mobilized to D.C. for the presidential inauguration.

“When you put this mosaic together, you just realize we truly are America’s utility knife and 911 force, where you can be called and can answer for any endeavor,” Mikolaities said.

Though all available guardsmen contributed, some have been on orders since the beginning--true elder statesmen of the Guard’s pandemic response.

Spc. Brendan Johnson, a HIMARS gunner with 3rd Battalion, 197th Field Artillery Brigade, has been at it for 13 months. After hauling PPE shipments and mapping COVID-19 contacts for much of his activation, he currently works in an administrative role for task force leadership.

“I never thought I’d stay this long,” Johnson said. “This is kind of the length of an actual deployment.”

Though Johnson had civilian careers at FedEx and Fratello’s restaurant, he’s volunteered to stay on full time.

His efforts have translated to big numbers. Johnson estimates he’s helped sort and salvage 410,000 pounds of food and delivered about 273,000 meals for the food bank. He also helped deliver nearly 15,000 orders of PPE, while logging almost 3,800 driving miles.

“I love it,” Johnson said. “Being on orders is great for me. I just reenlisted for another six years.”

Though he’s met many challenges over the past year, one sticks out: a summer’s day shipment of PPE.

“It was a 90 to 95-degree day, and we were in these super-hot trailers in the beating sun in the middle of the day,” Johnson recalled. “I was going through two gallons of water a day, just soaked with sweat. We’d be in there just so sweaty and exhausted, ‘One more box. Let’s keep going.’ We made it fun.”

Spc. Brett Lima, another HIMARS gunner, has also been on orders from the start. Though apprehensive at first, he has come to treasure the experience.

“At the start, it was a hassle to be on these orders,” Lima said. “But we come in here everyday for the past year, and it’s like you can’t find this anywhere else no matter where you go. The camaraderie, the morale here, we love it.”

He admits, however, that balancing work with family life has proven difficult.

“There’s been times where I’ve been working seven days a week, 12 hours a day,” Lima said. “The schedule changes a lot. The flexibility aspect of that has been really tough.”

Another task force veteran has been Maj. Luke Webster, a staff judge advocate. He’s helped with planning, operations and logistics for all COVID missions.

“There were times, because of the length of the mission, it’s a slog,” Webster said. “It becomes challenging. You know, you’re showing up every day, and there are times where it doesn’t feel like you’re moving the needle.”

“But what’s amazing about the people on this mission is that they were able to rise to the challenge,” he added.

Webster was invigorated by how his efforts impacted his own community and family. He recalled a moment shared with his daughter, a kindergartener.

“Every night at dinner, we talk about our day,” Webster said. “You know, ‘What did you do today? What was the best part of your day?’ Those sorts of things. I was able to tell her, “We helped drop off masks and gloves to your school today to make sure everyone was safe; to make sure your teachers were safe; to make sure the kids were safe at your school.’ And I was pretty proud of that.”

Though Mikolaities projects a smaller task force presence in the months ahead, there’s work still to be done by Johnson, Lima, Webster and their comrades. The fight isn’t over yet. But meanwhile, the adjutant general has been amazed by their ability to adapt, react and overcome.

“When I look back and reflect on the year, my first thought is pure pride with being affiliated with the soldiers and airmen for what they’ve done,” Mikolaities said. “Everyone has had a positive demeanor and outlook in helping their state and I think that speaks highly of the next greatest generation.”