SHADDADI from Syria
In the scorching 108-degree heat, far from his healthcare business in Louisiana, Army Col. Scott Desormeaux and his soldiers are on a dusty base near the northern Syrian border, helping Syrian rebel forces to fighting Islamic State militants and keeping an eye out for Russian troops in the area.
It is a hard duty for the soldiers. But their deployment to the Middle East last November is only a small part of the hectic pace of missions that members of the Louisiana National Guard and other U.S. citizen-soldiers have faced over the past 18 months.
Beyond overseas deployments, members of the Guard have been called in to address the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters and protests against racial injustice. For many, that means months away from their civilian jobs and rare moments with families. While Guard chiefs say the troops are optimistic, they fear exhaustion is set in and wonder how much longer American companies can do without their long-absent workers.
Back home in Louisiana, Sgt. 1st Class Bray Harris has lived in hotels around Baton Rouge since March 2020, helping to provide COVID-19 tests and the vaccine to residents. He was only able to return home to Lake Charles – a two-hour drive away – a few times, including to evacuate his mother during one of the main storms to hit the state.
Not far away, at Camp Beauregard, Captain Michael Switzer sleeps in his office. For the past 15 months, he and his soldiers have juggled security and working at virus testing sites with clearing roads and delivering emergency supplies during storms and then distributing the vaccine. For Father’s Day, his wife bought him a camp bed and a 5-inch thick foam mattress to replace the air mattress he was using.
Since March 2020, Guard units across the country have moved from one national crisis to another. They were called upon almost immediately when the pandemic erupted to help carry out tests, build field hospitals, provide health care and, possibly, deliver vaccines. But at the same time, many – like those in Louisiana – were also facing a record year of storms and hurricanes while taking weeks off from their regular jobs to protect their communities during race riots. More than 26,000 members of the Guard have been deployed to Washington, DC, to ensure the inauguration of the President.
âThe past year has been extraordinary for the National Guard,â said General Dan Hokanson, head of the National Guard Bureau. Is he afraid that exhaustion will set in? âIt’s something that has been on my mind from the start.
As he was making his rounds, he said the Guard troops were optimistic and told him, âHey, that’s what we signed up for. But across states, there are growing concerns about returning troops to their regular jobs and returning to critical training programs.
For Desormeaux, last year began with the pandemic outbreak, as his soldiers deployed to help build a 2,000-bed hospital at the Memorial Convention Center in New Orleans. Others have scattered across the state, setting up mobile test sites and delivering test kits as needed.
Then, in early June, Tropical Storm Cristobal made landfall in Louisiana, becoming the first of six named storms and hurricanes to hit the state last year. And as the hurricane season ended, Desormeaux’s 256th Infantry Brigade packed up and headed for Syria.
“This is probably the most difficult two-year period you can find,” he told reporters who traveled to Shaddadi with Naval General Frank McKenzie, commander-in-chief for the Middle East. “But I think it really is a testament to the dedication and professionalism of these kids, because they’ve been there every step of the way.”
When Harris moved to the Doubletree Hotel in Baton Rouge in March 2020 to be near his on-call logistics post, he had no idea he would be quitting his job at the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development for 15 months. During this time, he returned home to Lake Charles primarily to check out his two properties and to get his mother to safety during big storms.
âGoing over a year of his life without really catching his breath, without really unplugging – it’s been a challenge, and each disaster or circumstance presented its own set of challenges,â said Harris, who had a flood of property during Hurricane Delta, forcing it to sell because it didn’t have time to fix it. âMy leaders supported me in every way, and whenever I needed to pick up my mother, they allowed me to do so. Whenever I needed to go secure my property after the storm, they allowed me to do so.
In most cases, employers were understanding as their workers left to fulfill their on-call responsibilities. For some, the daycare provided a critical salary as businesses downsized or shut down as the pandemic raged. For others, especially those in the medical fields, reporting to child care was not a good option.
âWe didn’t want to tap into those who already provide emergency services,â Switzer said. âSo we had some issues with not using our first responders, because they also struggle with that in a different capacity. “
These limitations, he said, reduced their troop pool, and this was exacerbated by members of the Guard who would suddenly contract COVID-19 or be forced into self-quarantine because they were exposed. The guard focused on calling out unemployed soldiers first, he said, including some who worked on the oil rigs.
âA lot of the oilfield workers who have been made redundant would come and work until they can return to this field,â Switzer said. âWe were able to give them a job. Thus, not only did they help fulfill the mission, but they also helped their families by finding employment. “
Sgt. Major Verdis Walker was called up for storm duty in April 2020, leaving his post with the Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Department. He moved into his RV in central Louisiana and lived there for much of the last year, until he moved on to pandemic service. Now he lives in the Guard Barracks in Carville, near Baton Rouge, where he is the enlisted senior advisor to the Louisiana Guard’s COVID-19 task force.
He said the biggest challenge for the troops was to keep a positive attitude and a good balance between their daycare, professional jobs and families. For him, that means taking time off when he can drive four hours north to his home and the sheriff’s department so he can take courses and maintain his weapons rating and other certifications he sees fit. needs to remain an officer.
âLucky for me, I have a sheriff in my town who is very friendly to the military, and he strongly supports military efforts,â Walker said. âHe understands that when storms and things happen, people have to go and help them. “
So far, Hokanson said, tensions over the past year have not affected the detention.
The Army Guard reached its final strength goal of 336,500 for the exercise starting in October. And he said a small recruiting deficit was offset by the higher number of retention and an increase in the number of active-duty soldiers and Marines moving to the Guards.
Looking ahead, Hokanson said that as more businesses begin to reopen, members of the Guard will be increasingly needed for their jobs.
“A lot of our soldiers and airmen who may not have had a job or been put on leave during this time, many of them are asking them to return to work,” he said, adding that adjutants general of all states must carefully manage the operations and training of their troops over the coming months.
âWe asked them a lot,â Hokanson said. âNow, states want to focus on strengthening their combat readiness and really getting back to that balance between their civilian careers, their military careers and their families. “
For Harris, that means returning to his job in the transportation department when his orders are complete. He was assured that the work would be there upon his return, but in the meantime, his custodial assignment continues.
âI knew I had a mission and that my condition depended on me. It was never a question of “How am I going to do this?” âJust get up and do it,â he said. “It was an opportunity to grow as a leader and to really feel that I am making a difference.”