Story and photos by Staff Sgt. Michael Giles, 36th Infantry Division Public Affairs
AUSTIN, Texas—She was a hardworking server in a small-town Texas country store. Less than a year out of high school, she paid her bills and saved for the future by working double shifts whenever she could.
“I like to make sure that I have all my ducks in a row,” said 18-year-old Tori Stricklin. “Even if I don’t necessarily need the extra hours, I’ll go ahead and do it. You never know what life is going to throw at you. For example, the coronavirus.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic started to threaten the economy, her ability to pay her bills suddenly seemed uncertain. The store initially stayed open, taking to-go orders, but the outlook wasn’t good.
“Because of the coronavirus, things started to head downhill pretty quickly, and I wasn’t quite sure where things were going to go,” Stricklin said.
“Without tips, there’s only so much you can make.”
Then she got a call asking her if she wanted to help out with the Texas Military Department’s COVID-19 response. Gov. Greg Abbott had mobilized several units of Army and Air National Guardsmen, as well as the Texas State Guard to support the basic needs of Texans through the pandemic. One of these units was Task Force 176, which included members of Stricklin’s unit, the176th Engineer Brigade.
Stricklin, now a private first class, enlisted in the Army National Guard when she was 17, and began working as a human resource specialist in the 176th’s personnel section as a traditional part time Guardsman. So when she received the offer to activate full-time for the COVID-19 response, she jumped at the chance knowing she could avoid being unemployed during a time of uncertainty.
“About two days after I got that call, my store had shut down, so I would have been without a job,” said Stricklin.
While the primary purpose of the activation is to protect Texans against the spread of COVID-19, it also created an opportunity for part-time service members to keep working, said Col. Robert Crockem, commander of the 176th Engineer Brigade.
“We’re in the business of taking care of Texans,” Crockem said. “Right now, we’re supporting Texans by distributing the medical supplies they need, and helping to provide increased hospital bed space and medical capabilities.”
“But in the chaos caused by this pandemic, some Texans are struggling to stay employed, and that includes many National Guard Soldiers,” Crockem continued. “By activating unemployed Guardsmen to full-time status, we seized another opportunity to help Texans thrive.”
One of the first teams of Texas Military Department personnel to activate following Gov. Greg Abbott’s order was Joint Task Force 176’s General Support Unit 4, a team of engineers with the 840th Engineer Mobility Augmentation Company.
“We had to mobilize and assemble at the armory within 12 hours with a 34-person unit,” said 1st Sgt. Denton Humphrey, first sergeant with the 840th, explaining that “after getting the call the evening of March 18, the team was assembled and fully mission-capable by 8 a.m. the following morning.”
With the majority of this first group being made up of college students, Humphrey said that it was a good opportunity for them to earn money and serve their state by building medical facilities and supporting food bank operations.
“Now we can provide them with some income and the availability to work on their online classes,” Humphrey said.
When additional personnel were needed, half of the next wave of activated individuals were struggling to stay employed due to the pandemic.
“Very specifically, we combed the unit for Soldiers who had lost a job due to the COVID-19 and those were our first choice,” Humphrey said.
Matthew Faulkenberry, a corporal in the Texas Army National Guard, is another hard working Texas whose livelihood was put in jeopardy by the pandemic. Over the last few years, he had established himself as the informal project manager for both the office and the warehouse at a construction company.
“I made a lot of connections through there,” Faulkenberry said. “It led me to accepting another job with my official title as project manager.”
He gave his two weeks’ notice, and in two weeks, he was without a job. COVID-19 had struck, severely impacting employment in several industries, to include the construction sector. The company still wanted him as a member of their team in the future, but for the time being, they wouldn’t be able to keep him busy or give him a steady paycheck.
“The company called me and said, ‘you still have the job, but you don’t have a job,’” Faulkenberry said.
He immediately assessed his finances to determine how much he would need to earn to keep the bills paid, and then focused on getting back to work. What kind of work he did was less important to him than it was for him to fulfill his obligation to support his family.
“I started reaching out for jobs that I was overqualified for, but I needed to have income for my family,” said Faulkenberry. “I applied at Whataburger and McDonalds just because I needed something.”
Fortunately, the National Guard was able to put him to work. Faulkenberry previously served part-time as a reconnaissance sergeant in the 176th Engineer Brigade. He heard that his unit was looking for volunteers to help with the COVID-19 response, and he seized the opportunity.
“I’m thankful for that,” Faulkenberry said. “It’s very good for me because I have a family to take care of. I have a daughter and a wife, and the income I’m bringing from here helps me make sure they have a roof over their head.”
Since the Texas Military Department initiated the COVID-19 response, Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard, Airmen with the Texas Air Guard and Texas State Guardsmen have been working to meet the basic needs of their fellow Texans. Their efforts have included construction in support of medical facilities, distribution of medical supplies and even preparing and distributing meals in support of food banks. Helping to meet these employment needs is just one more way the activation is about serving the common good in Texas, said Humphrey.
“As Guard members, it’s beneficial for them both ways, whether we’re protecting them and we’re working with the public to protect the public,” Humphrey said. “Texans supporting Texans--that’s what we do.”