Cal Guard Space Operators support COVID-19 food bank mission

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jason Sweeney
  • California Air National Guard’s 216th Space Control Squadron

When Staff Sgt. Brandon Tinges became a space operator for the California Air National Guard’s 216th Space Control Squadron, cabbages were the furthest thing from his mind.

On April 2, Tinges and five of his fellow space operators reported to the Food Bank of Santa Barbara County in Santa Maria, California, and went to work sorting cabbages, pears and other produce. They packaged bags of food, loaded them onto trucks and vans and delivered them to lower-income families and the elderly in Santa Maria and surrounding communities.

Their food bank mission was part of the California National Guard’s COVID-19 response. On March 17, at the request of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Cal Guard activated resources to provide manpower to food banks, and medical support to civilian agencies, as part of a statewide humanitarian mission.

Around 1,000 Cal Guard Soldiers and Airmen have been activated to support food banks throughout California and have packaged and delivered millions of pounds of food to vulnerable populations. The space operators from the 216th were activated to support this effort.

“We’re 24/7 prepared to respond to missions like this,” said Tinges, who is a solar salesman on the civilian side and lives in Clovis.

The 216th Space Control Squadron is based at Vandenberg Air Force Base and is part of the California Air National Guard’s 195th Wing. The federal mission of the 216th is to provide combat space superiority effects to the Commander of the Joint Functional Component Command – Space, and theater combatant commanders. The unit’s space operators deploy globally to conduct mobile and transportable space superiority and evaluate and operate new counter-space technologies.

Because of its space-focused mission, the 216th was recently gained by the newly formed U.S. Space Force, which was founded in December 2019.

Space operators for the 216th are highly trained in a technical career field. But as California National Guard members, they also have a state mission and are subject to activation by the Governor of California for emergencies, such as wildfires, floods and earthquakes. The COVID-19 pandemic was just such an emergency.

Food banks up and down California have experienced a surge in demand for food while civilian volunteers and staff have been unavailable to package, load and deliver meals.

The Food Bank of Santa Barbara County requested assistance through county officials who then contacted the California Office of Emergency Services (CAL OES), which tasked the Guardsmen to serve as manpower until civilian volunteers could return. Cal Guard Airmen from the 146th Airlift Wing and the 216th Space Control Squadron were tasked with ensuring that food was getting to those in need in the Santa Maria area.

“When we deliver food, kids come out and are happy to see us,” Tinges said. “It feels really good to be a part of this.”

Airman 1st Class Carl Ritacco is a 216th space operator from nearby Lompoc and works full time for the Cal Guard. “The circumstances aren’t favorable, but it’s gratifying to be able to help the people of California,” he said.

Airman 1st Class Benjamin Dorschner, a 216th space operator, is a mechanical engineering student who lives in Los Angeles and hopes someday to work for NASA. Whether it’s working out of a darkened Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) on Vandenberg Air Force Base, or packing pears at a food bank, he said he is proud to serve in the Cal Guard. “Being able to dedicate my time to people who need me is very rewarding,” he said.

Soldiers and Airmen will continue supporting food bank operations, however, Cal Guard leadership is asking for help from the public. Those who are willing and able should consider volunteering at their local food banks. If enough of the public volunteers, Cal Guardsmen will be free to respond to other emergency missions as needed.