Staff Sgts. Bryant East and Andy Eiseman trek in their U.S. Army uniforms down a dirt path with bags draped over their shoulders.
As members of the Maryland National Guard, this sight isn’t uncommon for them. Military servicemen and women are used to these types of treks, most of the time, even longer ones.
But the purpose of this particular mission on an overcast Thursday is much different than what might be seen on a typical ruck.
Dozens of members of Frederick’s local National Guard Unit, A Company 1-175 Infantry joined the city of Frederick and the Frederick Community Action Agency on a humanitarian mission this week, distributing food and hygiene products to the city’s most vulnerable residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Guardsmen handed out food at several locations to residents and delivered care packages to homeless residents at an encampment in Frederick and along Carroll Creek Linear Park.
Since Gov. Larry Hogan announced he was activating the Maryland National Guard on March 13, approximately 2,000 guardsmen have helped to provide Maryland residents with access to food and medical assistance and to provide site security around the state.
“To see Maryland National Guard members supporting in my neighborhood where I grew up, it’s humbling,” said Maj. Kurt Rauschenberg, director of public affairs and a New Market resident. “This is our purpose. It’s not just to go overseas and fight America’s wars. It’s to be here in the states and help however we can.”
East added it’s nice to be able to help the community that most local barrack guardsmen live in. Many of them donate to the community action agency food bank, and their families help the local Salvation Army, he said.
While the local barrack spent the early portion of its activation in other areas of the state, they’re now spending increased time in Frederick.
And they will continue to provide services to Frederick for as long as is needed, said Rauschenberg. And the need is likely to increase.
During the first month of the pandemic, residents flocked to stores to stock up on necessities. But in the several weeks that have passed, they’ve likely depleted those resources.
“A lot of people are staying in, as they should, so they’re not able to get to stores to re-stock. So we’re able to bridge that gap,” East said.
Organizations like Frederick Community Action Agency have fewer volunteers at their disposal due to the number of people staying home during the pandemic. These guardsmen are able to help fill that void. They completed a food drop Wednesday in the Hickory Hill neighborhood, where the line for food wrapped around the block. On Thursday, they provided support to the same neighborhood, and while the crowd was more sparse than the day before, several dozen residents stopped by to grab a bag of food that included canned goods, fruits and vegetables and hygiene items like a roll of toilet paper. Some residents who dropped by without a mask even received one from a guardsmen to help prevent the potential spread of the virus.
After all, the guardsmen need to protect themselves, too. After being activated, the first step for the Maryland National Guard was to screen guardsmen and determine who had traveled or might be experiencing symptoms and need to quarantine. Since then, they’ve occupied the second floor at the Clarion Inn in Frederick, where they can isolate away from their families. They have access to laundry facilities to wash and sanitize their uniforms and personal protection equipment, which is limited just like everywhere else.
“That was the very first thing that was pushed by leadership,” East said. “Making sure we took the right steps to protect ourselves.”
East is one of the few guardsmen from the Frederick barrack who works for the guard full-time. The majority of the rest of the company have other jobs and careers. They left those behind temporarily to serve others during a crisis in ways they’re not altogether used to.
The Maryland National Guard was activated for the riots in Baltimore in 2015. In 2016, they activated in Frederick to assist law enforcement after major snowstorms hit the county. They’ve assisted during hurricanes like Irene and Sandy. But there was little thought they would be assisting during a health pandemic in ways such as walking to homeless encampments to deliver care packages. And while the mission dubbed “Operation Corona Freedom” is unlike any they expected to participate in, they’re prepared to step up.
“For me, it’s what I expect these guys to do,” said East, who has been with the National Guard since 2009. “It takes a certain individual to put this uniform on. So most of these guys are happy to do it. This is why they joined. They want to give back in whatever capacity that is.”
It’s exactly why they signed up.
That’s what they all tell you.
They signed up to take action when called upon. They signed up to be on the front lines. Even when there are no guns needed. Even when it’s as seemingly simple as delivering food or care packages to residents. They signed up to fight the battles. To protect us from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Even the enemies we can’t see.