A Year Later, Ohio National Guard Still Serving with Second Harvest

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – When Capt. Lauren Meyer first addressed members of the Ohio Army National Guard about their mission to pack food boxes, she told them the deployment was for just 30 days – but that their work could be extended if it was needed.

That was over 370 days ago, and the guardsmen are still packing boxes at the Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley.

On Monday, the food bank sponsored an  appreciation day to thank the soldiers for their year of work.

“These men and women have logged over 40,000 man-hours since they got here a year ago,” said Mike Iberis, executive director of the food bank. “Without that time and effort put in by these folks, we would not have been able to provide food to Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull county residents that are in need.”

The National Guard has rotated soldiers in and out of assignments over the last year. Some left due to re-employment at work, going to college and assisting with testing. Others were redeployed closer to their homes.

Warrant officer candidate Adam Fullmer, spokesman for the Ohio Army National Guard, was one of the soldiers who was reassigned. Fullmer, a native of Louisville in Stark County, was originally stationed at the Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio in Lorain. In August, he was sent to Youngstown to be closer to home.

“[The guardsmen in Youngstown] were short a few people,” Fullmer said. “I’ve stayed here in Youngstown ever since and kind of taken charge over here.”

Fullmer, in his 16th year as a National Guardsman, is used to long deployments. He was sent to Egypt in 2008 as part of the Multinational Force and Observers, whose mission is to oversee the security provisions of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. He was there for a year, so the lengthy deployment isn’t a new experience for him. But some of the younger soldiers and airmen haven’t been on deployment for this long.

As the veteran of the group, Fullmer said the yearlong food distribution was uncharted territory for the soldiers he knows personally. He couldn’t recall anyone he has met that served a year on a humanitarian mission. 

Over the last year, he has seen a change in the younger guardsmen as the importance of the situation became clear to them.

The first guardsmen and airmen arrived at Second Harvest 370 days ago for what was initially intended to be a 30-day mission to aid the food bank.

“It’s a good feeling to go home at night and know that you fed someone’s kids that might not know where their food was coming from,” Fullmer said.

There are 18 guardsmen working out of the Second Harvest Food Bank, most of them from the Youngstown area. Twenty soldiers were deployed to the food bank on March 23, 2020.

“We work long hours, six days a week or Saturdays sometimes. And it’s worth it,” Fullmer said. “Even if you can’t see that on Day One, by the time you finish here, I guarantee you you’ll see that it is worth it.”

Iberis said the food bank has seen a decrease in need recently, but that demand is still higher than . At the height of the pandemic, the food bank was preparing food for 18,000 people a week. That number is now down to 15,000 per week, which is still 2,000 more than before the pandemic.

The Second Harvest Food Bank usually has 60 volunteers per day. Iberis closed off the facility to volunteers during the pandemic and that hasn’t changed. But he said he is hopeful to slowly start bringing volunteers back this summer.

“They’re just anxious to get back,” Iberis said. “I’m starting to think they’re getting a little bit bored.”

Iberis said he wouldn’t bring back the volunteers with the National Guard still deployed because it wouldn’t be necessary.

Fullmer couldn’t comment on how long the Ohio Army National Guard would stay at the Second Harvest Food Bank. But the soldiers are prepared to continue packing boxes until the mission is complete.

“We’re National Guard soldiers, we’re National Guard airmen,” Fullmer said. “And whatever the state of Ohio needs, we’re going to be there.”

Pictured: Soldiers and airmen from the Ohio Army National Guardpack food into boxes for the Second Harvest Food Bank of theMahoning Valley.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.