On March 11, New Mexico’s governor declared a State of Public Health Emergency after the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported. For many employees of Sandia National Laboratories, this meant that telecommuting, stocking up on food and toilet paper, and adjusting to school and daycare closures would soon follow. For Staff Sergeant Tawnya Jones and other members of the New Mexico National Guard, it meant stepping away from a Sandia civilian job and responding to a no-notice military deployment to support the state’s battle against the virus.
A commitment to service
As the virus began to escalate, the U.S. Army and Air National Guard in New Mexico were called into service to support the state’s COVID-19 response efforts. It was then that Tawnya volunteered to serve for six weeks, starting her duty two weeks later. This commitment to service is one that’s shared and supported by her civilian employer, Sandia Labs, too.
Tawnya started working at Sandia last July in its business continuity program and recently became an Emergency Planner. She has been with the Air National Guard since 2013. For two days a month, she plans exercises, completes inspections, builds checklists and conducts trainings as part of her service. And when the deployment orders came from the Department of Military Affairs’ adjutant general, it was through Sandia’s military leave benefit that she was able to volunteer.
“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 Air National Guard and balancing that with Sandia,” Tawnya said. “I’m really thankful for the military leave and all the HR folks and managers and team staff members who were able to assist during this.”
Called to duty
While volunteering, Tawnya worked to establish the Joint Operations Center, which coordinates and advises on the National Guard’s humanitarian relief efforts. Starting in the center’s logistics section, she was able to track vehicle mileage, supplies and meals for the state’s active duty orders, and within a week, she was moved to an intelligence role. Starting each morning with a brief to the adjutant general before he reported to the governor, she would gather 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 (PPE) supplies; case projections; and how activities nationwide could affect the National Guard’s relief response 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.
While Hammond and Wilcox were able to apply their skill sets from their roles at Sandia, Tawnya found herself learning new logistics and intelligence tactics quickly. The diversity of backgrounds and can-do morale shared by the Joint Operations Center group helped, though.
“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 while working at Sandia, she’d 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, her Director of Joint Staff, Col. Jamison Herrera, ensured the achievement wouldn’t go unacknowledged. He presented Tawnya with her diploma, inviting other airmen and soldiers in the mission to attend.
“They were really motivated to be able to do a mock graduation ceremony,” Tawnya recalled. “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.”
Tawnya said the mission is still ongoing, and she expects that it will continue through the fall as further waves of the virus are anticipated. Now that she’s back at Sandia, she’s grateful to have had two clear examples of communities that are dedicated to protecting one another’s well-being, during COVID-19 and after.
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