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    Certainty in the time of COVID-19: How purpose, connection and spirituality strengthen pandemic response members

    Certainty in the time of COVID-19

    Photo By Staff Sgt. Michael Giles | Texas State Guard Pfc. Jason Hunter, liaison officer assigned to Joint Task Force 176,...... read more read more



    Story by Staff Sgt. Michael Giles 

    Texas Military Department

    CAMP MABRY, Texas—By late March 2020, the mood had become sour and anxious on the news, in our grocery stores, and in our homes. Children grew restless without schools to attend, and parents were overwhelmed with the new responsibility to homeschool them. Citizens lost their employment, and along with it, their confidence in being able to feed their families. Americans lost our stress-relieving comforts, as sports, movie theaters, restaurants and coffee shops abruptly disappeared from our daily lives.

    No one knew how long our lives would be this way. Or whether or not we would get sick. Or if we’d be safe walking our dogs or at the grocery store.

    Ecclesiastes 3 states: “There is a time for everything.”

    Late March 2020 was a time not to know.

    Members of the Texas Military Department activated in support of the COVID-19 response mission faced uncertainty with the daily awareness that we didn’t know how long the pandemic would continue. When do we go home, to our families, to our jobs, to our lives?

    And yet, the morale was high. Soldiers, Airmen and Texas State Guardsmen who were supporting Texans by serving at food banks, distributing medical supplies and disinfecting nursing homes smiled with calm determination. They moved with enthusiasm and purpose as if life were both enjoyable and meaningful as they got their jobs done.

    My knee jerk response to seeing their fulfillment was jealousy. I wanted that. And then I saw an opportunity. I could learn what makes these individuals thrive in uncertainty, and I could pass it on. But as I proceeded to investigate members of Joint Task Force 176 and learn what makes them so happy, I realized there was no new secret to discover, but a powerful reminder. These individuals remained positive by finding certainty in what most of us already know to protect us from stress: connection, purpose and spirituality.


    “Even when you’re working hard, and you’re tired and sweaty, it helps to find time to make each other laugh throughout the day, and make whatever task you’re doing enjoyable,” said Senior Airmen Regan Houser, an aircrew flight equipment technician with the 149th Operations Support Squadron.

    Houser worries about his mom, a healthcare worker. He explained that she takes all the appropriate precautions, but she goes into a hospital every day, putting herself at risk of contracting COVID-19.

    He stays positive in the face of this worry by “just engaging with the people you’re around, whatever the mission may be,” he said.

    The strength service members draw from their team was beautifully illustrated by members of the 840th Engineer Mobility Augmentation Company, who formed the task force’s General Support Unit 4 in response to the pandemic.

    When I first got into the bus with them to capture photos of their mission, they were silent. No one said a word. I asked, “Are you all being quiet because I’m here?”

    “Yes,” said one of them curtly, without hesitation.

    But the presence of a public affairs guy with a camera didn’t keep them quiet for long. One Soldier started singing along to the song on the radio. When the next song came on, more were singing. Then they started dancing in their seats. When we arrived at the Camp Swift barracks in Bastrop, Texas, they were to transform into medical isolation facilities, they executed quickly. Moving in synchronized rhythm as if they were still dancing, they installed curtains between bunks. They handed each other tools when they needed them. They supported each other physically when an awkward position was required. There was none of the annoyed “Excuse me!” or “Watch out!” utterances you’d expect with a large group of people working quickly in a small enclosed space.

    No one gave the impression they wished they were anywhere else, or that their minds were focused on anything other than their mission or their team.

    The emotional and behavioral harmony demonstrated by the 840th illustrates Sebastian Junger’s discussion in his book, "Tribe," about the psychological benefit of belonging to a group united by purpose. He gives the poignant example of early American settlers who were kidnapped by Native Americans, many of whom became so satisfied by tribal living that if they were rescued or returned to the settlements, they would run back to the tribes that had kidnapped them.

    Sgt. Chance Lipscomb, a Soldier with the 822nd Engineer Company, also assigned to Joint Task Force 176, agreed that the team is the answer.

    Things get stressful for him due to frequently changing mission parameters, requiring him and his Soldiers to be constantly flexible. He said it sometimes feels like “building the airplane as it’s flying.”

    Lipscomb relies on his team members for feedback when planning the missions, trusting they will catch anything he might miss. And they help each other overcome stress outside of the mission.

    “The longer you get to know these people, and the more you get to work with them on a day-to-day basis, the easier it is for you to kind of decompress some of the everyday stress with them,” Lipscomb said. “Take a second. Sit down. Hydrate a little bit, and shoot the stuff over laundry, or whatever your daily activities are.”


    When everything else seems uncertain, Soldiers find certainty in their mission’s purpose.

    Pfc. Kevin Diaz is a combat engineer with the 176th Engineer Brigade, whose duties include infection control screening for people entering Joint Task Force 176 headquarters. He worries that despite all precautions, a Soldier coming in from the field could still introduce the contagion at headquarters.

    But he’s able to get his job done every day, undistracted by this worry because he believes in the mission.

    “I try to focus on the task at hand, try to keep my mind off that worst-case scenario,” Diaz said. “We are trying to help the State of Texas. I know we’re doing good.”

    Pfc. Jason Hunter, a Texas State Guardsman, and liaison officer with Joint Task Force 176, said the knowledge that he’s doing something valuable helps keep him focused while engaged in potentially overwhelming tasks.

    “There’s been a lot of moving parts, and there’s been a lot of missions,” Hunter said. “Some days are very stressful because there’s a lot of activity to monitor and track. It’s usually when unexpected occurrences need to be addressed.”

    “But I take pride in doing the job well, in being able to fill a concrete need,” Hunter said. “I’m able to provide accurate and up to date data on any troops at any given moment.”

    Their leaders remind them they’re valuable to keep them motivated and prevent complacency. Col. Robert Crockem, commander of Joint Task Force 176, tells Soldiers their children will grow up knowing about the COVID-19 pandemic as a historical event, curious to know what it was like to serve in the relief operations.

    “We’re making history,” Crockem said. “A time will come when you’ll be able to look back and know you made a difference. The impact we’re having on the citizens of Texas is tremendous.”


    Task force members confirmed what research says about spirituality and resilience. Though commonly associated with religion, spiritual states of mind such as gratitude or perceiving meaning in life have been well studied and proven to help us recover from stress and persevere.

    Staff Sgt. Karmen Montgomery, a human resources sergeant with Joint Task Force 176, relies on solitary contemplation when demands on her section become overwhelming.

    “Time is a big stressor,” Montgomery said. “Usually I can work straight through a day without having to step away, but when things start to get overwhelming, I notice it. I have to step away and do a meditation or a prayer.”

    Another Soldier, Cpl. Alicia Clemons, a supply specialist with the 249th Transportation Company assigned to Joint Task Force 176, said the call up for the COVID-19 response had her abruptly step away from her business, leaving it entirely in the hands of her business partner.

    “My faith in God is what keeps me going, and helping my battle buddies, and knowing I’m part of something that’s bigger than myself,” Clemons said.

    The Joint Task Force 176 chaplain, Captain Brett Anderson, explained that when we need certainty, we can find it in something bigger than us: our team, our mission, or a belief in something ethereal.

    “When the world gets turned upside down, we look for stability,” Anderson said. “The people around us are one source. Serving with other Soldiers is a great support. The other is our spirituality, which provides us our understanding of the bigger picture of the meaning and purpose of life. It’s the foundation that doesn't move even in uncertain times.”

    Witnessing the good news

    When I saw the harmony both in the mood and action of the Soldiers with the 840th as they installed curtains, it was the first of two moments during the activation that shook me out of my own stress.

    The second moment hit me one evening as I drove from the Joint Task Force 176 headquarters to my office where I see psychotherapy clients part-time.

    Many of my clients, like much of our population, were struggling to feel upbeat. Regardless of which major news outlet they frequented, and regardless of their political stances, it’s been hard for people to smile when looking at TV or internet news.

    “I wish they could see what I see,” I said to myself, out loud, as I exited the Camp Mabry gates.

    While much of the world has been watching the problem, members of the Texas Military Department have been able to witness--and take part in--the solution: men and women in uniform working harder than is comfortable, staying away from home longer than they would want to, to make things better for our families, our neighbors, our communities… and remaining gracious, hopeful, and proud as they do.

    Story and photos by Staff Sgt. D. Michael Giles, 36th Infantry Division Public Affairs



    Date Taken: 05.27.2020
    Date Posted: 05.27.2020 23:55
    Story ID: 370874
    Location: AUSTIN, TEXAS, US

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