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ND National Guard responds to COVID-19, wildfires and more

Submitted Photo Staff Sgt. Tyler Fixen, of Alpha Battery of 1st Battalion 188th Air Defense Artillery, organizes data collector clipboards at the COVID-19 mobile testing site in Minot on June 19, 2020, shown in this photo by Sgt. 1st Class Brett Miller. The North Dakota National Guard’s COVID-19 response was its largest state activation in N.D. history.

Typically, North Dakota National Guard members are activated within the state for specific types of events, usually Mother Nature-related ones such as floods, blizzards and wildfires.

“Those are some of the more common ones we end up responding to,” said N.D. Army National Guard Capt. Chad Worrel, based in Minot with the Guard’s 164th Engineer Battalion.

“Of course, this past year our COVID response has been a very heavy response,” Worrel told members of the Minot Area Chamber EDC’s Military Affairs Committee at a recent meeting. The meeting was hosted by the Guard at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in northeast Minot.

Previous to the COVID-19 response, Worrel said the 2011 Souris River flood required the most personnel days that the N.D. National Guard – Air Guard and Army Guard – had committed to as a force. He said Air Guard and Army Guard committed 67,000 personnel days to the flood.

“COVID unfortunately has gone on for a substantial amount of time,” Worrel said. “We originally started with 250 to 300 soldiers that responded to this COVID activation, this COVID mission, where we were going out and doing testing throughout the state of North Dakota and as time progressed, we were also working with transportation of vaccines.”

Submitted Photo Soldiers from the 816th Military Police Company give information packets to incoming patients to fill out at the COVID-19 mobile testing site at Williston High School in Williston May 4, 2020, shown in this photo by Sgt. Michaela C.P. Granger.

As of the June 3 meeting, Worrel said COVID-19 response reached 110,000 (personnel days). “So this is our largest state activation in the history of North Dakota,” he said.

As of that June date, he said about 150 Guard members were supporting the COVID-19 mission. Of the 150 Guard members, he said about 125 were Army Guard and about 25 Air Guard.

“We’ll continue to support that for about two more months,” Worrel said at the June 3 meeting. “After that two month timeframe that’s when they’re drastically cutting things back and they have also worked diligently to hand things off to the local public health force so they can be assuming all the responsibility,” he said.

Worrel has been in the Guard for 21 years and working for the Guard full time for six years. For about 15 years he was a school teacher, then a school principal before becoming a full-time Guardsman in Bismarck and now in Minot.

He said the Minot battalion has 538 soldiers and 29 personnel working full time to support it.

North Dakota National Guard Funeral Honors fire a 21-gun salute with a World War I era cannon at the annual Memorial Day ceremony, May 31, shown in this photo by Bill Prokopyk, N.D. National Guard.

His June 3 presentation was done on behalf of Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann, N.D. adjutant general. As a dual staffs commander, Worrel said within the state Dohrmann oversees both the National Guard and the Department of Emergency Services (i.e. Homeland Security, State Radio, etc.).

Worrel said the N.D. National Guard technically is owned by the state. “We are a federal entity but we’re also a state entity,” he added.

Within the N.D. National Guard, Worrel said there’s approximately 4,000 soldiers and airmen. He said that breaks down to about 3,000 on the Army side and about 1,000 on the Air Guard side. Within those entities, he said there are numerous federal employees and a handful of state employees. He said quite a few people work full time on the full-time side to support the entire National Guard as an entity.

Worrel also said the Guard’s military police couple different incidents including one in Fargo and a substantial number going to Washington, D.C.

Due to the extreme drought, he said the Guard has also been involved in efforts to fight wildfires this year. “On a typical year about 15,000 acres within the state of North Dakota end up burning up due to wildfires,” Worrel said. Already since January, he said, 100,000 acres have burned.

The Guard has a small response cell operating out of Bismarck. “It’s just a command element right now and then we have a standby force,” he said. He said the Guard’s Black hawk helicopters were used in the Medora area where they dumped “gallons and gallons of water” to help save the amphitheater there.

Due to COVID-19, many states did not hold the Vigilant Guard training exercise. “We were the only state that went forward with Vigilant Guard. We did have to scale it way back due to COVID,” said Worrel. He said Vigilant Guard takes place in every state and incorporates numerous entities in the exercise.

The National Guard members has also taken part in a number of events, including during the Memorial Day weekend.

National Guard construction projects going on in the state include a Reaper operation facility being constructed north of Hector International Airport in Fargo, Worrel said. He said another construction project in Fargo is a second armory that is nearly complete. On the docket for the future, he said is construction of a new armory in Dickinson.

Worrel said there is a project underway to establish a military museum. “We’re trying to find a location to construct a military museum in North Dakota,” he said. He said there’s an extensive amount of military history in North Dakota but no facility where people can see it and read it.

He added that North Dakota is second to New York for the highest number of Medal of Honor recipients. “That’s absolutely amazing for a state this size. Those facts and those figures should be on display,” he added.

He also said they been slowly adding on to Camp Grafton South. “We’ve been slowly acquiring land – buying land,” Worrel said. “That’s another large project and continual for the last couple years.”

Camp Grafton South, consisting of training areas and weapons ranges, is about 40 miles southeast of Camp Grafton North. Camp Grafton North is located along the shores of Devils Lake.

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