Labs employee and National Guard member gets called to active duty to help with NM virus response
On March 11, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a State of Public Health Emergency after the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported in New Mexico. For many Sandians, it meant that telecommuting, stocking food and toilet paper and adjusting to school and daycare closures would soon follow. For Staff Sgt. Tawnya Jones and other members of the New Mexico National Guard, it meant stepping away from a civilian job and responding to a no-notice military deployment to support the state’s battle against the virus.
Called to duty
After the executive order was signed, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Nava, the adjutant general of the Department of Military Affairs, ordered the U.S. Army and Air National Guards into service to support the COVID-19 response efforts at the governor’s discretion. Tawnya volunteered to serve; she started her duty two weeks after the order was stood up in Santa Fe.
“Our mission was to support the adjutant general and the governor by establishing and maintaining the Joint Operations Center, which coordinated and advised the adjutant general on all humanitarian relief efforts and other assistance to civil authorities,” Tawnya said.
Tawnya started in the logistics section of the center where she tracked vehicle mileage, supplies and meals for the state active duty orders. Within a week, she moved to the intelligence section that briefed Maj. Gen. Nava each morning before he reported to the governor.
Tawnya gathered data on weather patterns that could impact ground or air operations, national and state case counts, hospitalizations, intensive care unit bed and ventilator availability, personal protective equipment supplies, case projections and significant activities nationwide that could affect how the National Guard responded to relief efforts, including the possibility of food shortages and riots or protests as stay-at-home orders were extended.
Some of the projection data came from the Joint Forces Epidemic Intelligence Team, which included two other National Guard members from Sandia: computer scientist Simon Hammond and computer scientist Tim Wilcox, a contractor from Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
“They were on orders from the Army side, and they did all our modeling of what they expected the peak to be in New Mexico for cases of COVID, when we would see our downfall, and PPE projections to better plan for how much PPE the team would have to deliver in the future,” Tawnya said. “It was really neat to see lower-ranked soldiers using their civilian-side knowledge to apply to the mission.”
Although some volunteers used the same skillset from their civilian jobs, Tawnya had to learn logistics and intelligence quickly. She also enjoyed seeing a diverse set of backgrounds and perspectives come together in the JOC.
“It was a rewarding experience to help our citizens in their time of need. It was also interesting working side-by-side with the Army and experiencing the many differences between Army/Air culture,” she said. “The team effort with all of us — just the morale of the whole group — was really good. Even though we were in an office-type environment, sort of fast-paced, we would still make time to call for pushups or squats randomly throughout the day, and we’d all do pushups together as a group.”
The COVID-19 pandemic presented Tawnya with another challenge during her deployment. Earlier this year, she earned a master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis in government and policy from Grand Canyon University. Although she completed her coursework online, she had planned to walk across the stage in Phoenix to accept her diploma during an official graduation ceremony.
“I was planning to go in May, but when the pandemic hit and they restricted numbers in large gatherings, they canceled that,” she said. However, Director of Joint Staff Col. Jamison Herrera ensured she would still be able to have a memorable experience.
“They were really motivated to be able to do a mock graduation ceremony. At first, there were a lot of jokes and they wanted to wear robes — they called them wizard suits — and all the different things so they could make it similar to what my graduation ceremony would have been. I’m glad it turned out to be a simple presentation of my diploma instead,” she said. Col. Herrera presented Tawnya with her diploma and invited other airmen and soldiers in the mission to attend.
Tawnya said the mission is still ongoing, and she expects that it will continue through the fall as they anticipate another wave of the virus. After the pandemic, the team will wrap up with lessons learned and an action report to apply to future activations and missions for the state.
Back at Sandia
Tawnya has been with the Air National Guard since 2013 and spends two days a month planning exercises, completing inspections, building checklists and conducting trainings. She started at Sandia last July in the business continuity program and recently became an emergency planner. When the orders were called by the adjutant general, she volunteered to serve for six weeks under military leave from the Labs.
“I feel like there’s a lot of retired military personnel at Sandia, and I’ve been lucky enough to have managers and staff that understand the guard and military requirements, so it’s been really easy to go back and forth between doing some days with the guard and balancing that with Sandia,” Tawnya said. “I’m really thankful for the military leave and all the HR (Human Resources) folks and managers and team staff members who were able to assist during this.”
Now that she is back at Sandia, Tawnya hopes others will take this opportunity to be aware of their distance from others and stay clean.
“It’s a good situation for the community to see how we can all work together and lessons learned for being cognizant of each other’s space, washing your hands, and just being aware of when you go out when you’re sick, how many people you can affect. The awareness of when people say, ‘you’re sick, stay home and take advantage of your sick leave’ — it’s not just something we say, it’s something that should be taken seriously.”