The Arizona National Guard is putting out a call for volunteers at food banks across the state as they anticipate transitioning military efforts to civilians.
That was the message Command Sgt. Maj. Fidel Zamora gave during Thursday's groundbreaking for the new Sahuarita Food Bank and Resource Center next to Good Shepherd United Church of Christ.
"We have soldiers and airmen in all 15 counties in the state of Arizona supporting in various roles, some food banks, some vaccine sites, some test sites," he said. "We were called back in March to help the state, and we're happy to do so, but we can't do this long term."
Gov. Doug Ducey activated the National Guard to assist communities nearly a year ago when the coronavirus pandemic caused the first statewide shutdown. Arizona's soldiers and airmen provided labor and technical knowledge throughout the state, from restocking store shelves to medical support to assisting food banks facing increased demand for assistance.
Sahuarita Food Bank Executive Director Carlos Valles said he didn't want to think about how the organization would have met the community's needs without the Guardsmen stepping in.
Zamora said the state hadn't set a date for when the National Guard's mission would end. But the National Guard doesn't want that day to come without giving food banks across the state time to prepare for the loss in labor Guardsmen provide.
"The most important thing is for us to be able to communicate to those communities that it's very important that the sense of service that we carry, every Arizonan carries that same sense of service," Zamora said. "Volunteers are critical in any operation, especially with the number of different missions we have going on around the state."
The Rev. Randy Mayer from Good Shepherd is confident volunteers would come back and the community would pull together to fill the gap after the National Guard's mission ends.
"The community has really been connected and committed to this project," he said. "But with the pandemic, everything has really slowed down. We need to re-engage that and just create that spirit where this is really the community's project."
Valles said the food bank had some COVID-19 infections among volunteers in December. Weekly testing helped get on top of the situation quickly, but they stopped bringing in volunteers for safety. Since then, the food bank operates only with staff and Guardsmen.
"We want to do that transition so it's easier on everybody," Valles said. "As anyone is aware, being blindsided is very hard to make adjustments."
Valles also wants to get volunteers in with enough time for the Guardsmen to provide training before they go. Soldiers and airmen have been at Sahuarita's food bank for 10 months and contributed to streamlining the operation for increased COVID-19 safety and faster distribution.
After December's infections, the food bank requires volunteers to have both COVID-19 vaccination doses before returning.
"We're trying to protect the vulnerable population, which is 65 and older," Valles said. "But I did promise them that once they get their vaccine, we can slowly start that transition back."
About 30 food bank volunteers received their first dose and about 20 will receive their second next week. Valles anticipates bringing back some of them in early March. The food bank needs about 25 to 30 people to make a day's distribution service work. Right now, the food bank is operating with about 14 people.
"But, of course, we're working with the National Guard, and they're much younger," Valles said. "For an older volunteer, they're not able to do as much as someone who is 20 years old. We always like to double up so two older volunteers can help out together lifting boxes."
And even the younger Guardsmen find themselves tired at the end of the day, he said.
Before December's COVID-19 cases, volunteers quickly took to having the Guard on-site and developed lasting relationships with them.
And it wasn't just staff and volunteers who grew close to the service members moving boxes of food. Valles said clients had grown close to the Guardsmen as well.
Airman 1st Class Robert Bourbeau, a Tucson resident and an aviation mechanic with the 162nd Fighter Wing, started at the Sahuarita Food Bank in August.
"I was supposed to be a substitute one day and end up being here ever since," he said. "It's fantastic. I feel like I'm part of the community. We jokingly asked Carlos where's our W-2 because we've been doing so much work here. We feel like we're part of the family. And not just the food bank, the church and congregation as well."
Bourbeau wants to see volunteers transition back into the fold after COVID-19 spikes and infections sidelined them.
"The reintegration would be fantastic," he said. "That's part of being a citizen-soldier or citizen-airman, is being part of the community. And the volunteers are fantastic, super friendly and we're always saying hi, and they welcomed us with open arms."
Valles separated from the Air Force in 2006 and found a tough adjustment period without the camaraderie he grew to know. He expects the same when it comes time to say goodbye to the Guardsmen at the food bank.
"When I found out last March that we were going to be able to request them, I was excited because I knew what they would be able to bring," he said. "I was excited, but at the same time I knew, I told myself it's not going to be forever. So I've cherished the time that they've been here because they helped us overcome a 150-200 percent increase. Without them, we really would have struggled."
Senior command and leadership personnel within the National Guard traveled from Phoenix to Sahuarita during the groundbreaking as a show of support for the food bank and to get the word out on calling for more volunteers.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Gutierrez said the National Guard wants a smooth transition before its mission comes to an end. But he noted saying goodbye would be difficult for the Guardsmen who chose to serve their communities rather than active duty overseas.
"It's kind of heartfelt," Gutierrez said. "They want to eventually get back to their civilian employers and continue their civilian jobs and careers, but they have this sense of this is our responsibility, this is what we signed up for – to continue to help the citizens of Arizona."
However, Gutierrez said the Guardsmen know they eventually have to come off orders once federal funding for the mission ends. There's a transitional period as well.
Zamora said the Guardsmen couldn't just jump from mission one day and back to their civilian life the next.
The National Guard would need about one month to transition the airmen and soldiers back to their original units, use accrued leave and file administrative paperwork.
Zamora said Guardsmen also need to remain ready to fulfill their primary mission – supporting the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force in overseas operations.
"I know our leadership is committed to assisting the food banks, but again, we don't know what lies ahead," he said. "So we have to make sure that our soldiers and airmen are prepared to be able to pivot from the food bank mission to any others that may be asked of us to do."
Zamora said there are about 8,000 people in the National Guard, including civilians, making long-term assistance at food banks around the state unrealistic.
"I'd say this is an opportunity for us to send out a call to arms for all our volunteers that are out there to please consider taking part in this historic time in our nation," Zamora said.