TN Guard shifts from tornado cleanup to COVID-19 response

(Left to right) Sgt. Jacob Winton, Cpl. Justin Chambers, Spc. Austin Barnett, Spc. Austin Bahr, at a COVID-19 remote testing site in Putnam County, Tennessee, March 27. At the request of Bill Lee, 250 Soldiers and Airmen from the Tennessee National Guard have volunteered to provide support in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy Cordeiro)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It has been a tumultuous spring for middle Tennessee. While the world is dealing with a pandemic, cleanup from a devastating tornado is still underway in four counties. In the middle of it all is Sgt. Jacob Winton, a member of the Tennessee National Guard who has been helping his community in more ways than one.

Winton, 24, a combat medic with the 208th Area Support Medical Company based in Smyrna, is also an emergency medical technician in a civilian role for Putnam County. When tornadoes decimated areas of middle Tennessee March 2, Winton was there to help. He worked the first day after the storm as an EMT, helping transport and care for victims of the EF-4 tornado that killed 25 people. The next day, as the Tennessee National Guard was being activated in response to the tornado, Winton was one of the first to volunteer to serve his community.

“Cookeville is where I live and where I work,” said Winton. “To see that much devastation not even a mile from where I live, that was eye-opening.”

Just weeks later, Winton has a new mission. He and approximately 250 other National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have volunteered to assist the Department of Health with battling the novel coronavirus.

About 150 Guard members will provide medical assistance, just like Winton, at the 35 mobile assessment sites across the state.

“As an EMT and a combat medic in the Guard, I just felt like I could be utilized,” said Winton. “When you join the National Guard, you just want to be able to help your community in times like this.”

Winton, the reigning Tennessee Noncommissioned Officer of the Year, represented Tennessee in the Regional NCO of the Year competition last year and finished second. During the competition, he was with Spc. Justin Chambers, a fellow 208th ASMC Soldier who has since been promoted to corporal. Chambers finished second place in the state of Tennessee for Soldier of the Year and now serves alongside Winton at the Putnam County Department of Health, where the two combat medics are testing members of the community for COVID-19.

“The Tennessee National Guard is a team,” said Chambers. “This is an opportunity to get out and help our community, a community that really needs our help right now.”

Chambers and Winton are part of a four-man team of Guard members helping the Department of Health at its testing site in Putnam County. The volunteers received four days of training.

Upon completion of the training, Gov. Bill Lee and Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, Tennessee’s adjutant general, visited with the troops to offer support for their mission.

“This is about mothers, fathers, children and grandparents and Tennesseans that are counting on you to do something that they have no capacity to address,” said Lee. “It is the responsibility of every Tennessean, but some of us have a greater responsibility to attack the problem than others, and you are now finding yourselves on the front line of that attack and it is deadly important that we do this right.”

Whether Winton is activated for two weeks or two months, he is willing and able to help his community for as long as needed.

“That’s why we all joined the Guard,” said Winton. “I’m here to make a difference in my community and in my state. We have an opportunity to use our knowledge base to educate our neighbors and to make a real difference, and I’m going to take that opportunity every time.”

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