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National Guard Magazine |
November 2021

Another Bell


Spc. Shawn Pham has spoken such expressions of common courtesy for many of his 23 years. But he learned to express them entirely differently — by signing — while driving four hearing-impaired students to school for a few weeks in October and November.

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A red minivan with the words school bus mounted on its roof was his mode of transportation.

Pham was one of some 200 Massachusetts Army National Guard 7-D certified van drivers who transported students to public schools across the commonwealth this fall.

They volunteered for the state active duty necessitated by the same nationwide shortage of bus drivers that has made it difficult to get young people back to their classrooms on time after they spent much of last year confined to their homes because of COVID-19.

Pham was part of Task Force Castle-Operation Children First that transported the students from mid-September until Nov. 5, when the mission given to the Guard by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker ended.

Baker authorized up to 250 Guardsmen for that duty. They transported students in 13 communities — from Chelsea, Revere and Quincy around Boston in the east to Holyoke toward the west — during the peak period of three to four weeks.

Massachusetts was only state to employ Guardsmen for that purpose when Castle closed. Others have asked how Massachusetts was doing it, said Maj. Russell O’Neill, the task force’s deputy commander, but so far they have decided the program is not practical for them.

The unique mission made Massachusetts this autumn’s tip of the Guard’s domestic operations iceberg that has been expanding at an unprecedented rate during these past two years thanks to the “perfect storm” of the pandemic, racial violence and political strife, western wildfires and southwestern border security.

“We’re here when the bell rings,” said O’Neill last month. A civilian police detective, he’s traditional operations officer for the 101st Engineer Battalion, which was the headquarters element for Task Force Castle — the castle being the engineers’ renowned brand.

“I think it’s been a game changer in lots of ways,” Tom Scott, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents executive director, told Education Week.

Castle certainly made the public aware of the scope of the driver shortage, he said. It reportedly generated enough interest to attract some of the new drivers who were coming into the school transportation pipeline by the end of October.

Based at Camp Curtis Guild in Reading, the task force justified the faith that many people now place in the Guard. A total of 236 citizen-soldiers, including 199 certified drivers, from 30 different units and split into four geographic detachments took part, O’Neill said. They recorded 14,626 student pickups and drop-offs and logged 329,224 miles while driving 3,002 routes in the 13 municipalities during the seven weeks.

We all just wanted to see the kids get into the classrooms.

—Maj. Russell O'Neill, the deputy commander of Task Force Castle-Operation Children First

“We all just wanted to see the kids get into the classrooms,” he added of the collaboration involving public school districts, bus transportation companies, and the Guard.

The soldiers drove special education, handicapped and traditional students in the 7-D minivans that do not require a commercial driver’s license so that others with CDLs could operate the big yellow buses. In many cases, civilian monitors oversaw the students while the soldiers watched the road.

The citizen-soldiers made many friends even though they drove a small percentage of students.

Fifteen drivers transported 60 of the 1,500 students who require daily transportation in Chelsea, explained Superintendent Almi Abeyta.

She wondered if soldiers driving in uniform would alarm some students. But that did not prove to be the case. In fact, just the opposite.

Guardsmen, Abeyta recalled, had previously proven themselves during the pandemic while distributing food and vaccinating residents in the city. “They’ve had a presence here. Chelsea has a very trusting relationship with the National Guard,” she said.

“These National Guardsmen were outstanding, perfect gentlemen, all of them who worked with us from the lieutenant to the sergeant to the drivers themselves,” said Michael Draicchio, the director of safety, security and transportation for the Quincy Public Schools. “I couldn’t ask for a better situation.”

The Guardsmen, all of them traditional part-timers, relished the mission, its unexpected challenges and unique opportunities, including the possibility of landing permanent school transportation employment.

Learning rudimentary expressions in American Sign Language helped make it a good experience for Pham, whose daily destination for his four students was The Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham.

“It’s a good experience,” Pham said. “They were completely silent the first couple of days. I had to break the ice by asking how they were doing. Then they started talking among themselves. Then to me. Then we were like old friends.”

Erin Ligouri, a monitor who rode with Spc. Owen King in Worcester, said most of the the students liked their Guard drivers.

“I hear all the parents and all the teachers,” she said a week before Castle ended. “They say to the students: ‘Make sure you be nice to the guy driving the bus.’ The kids are just amazed. Oh, I can’t believe it. The National Guard is here to help me.”

Castle was also an exercise in real-world leadership as so many other Guard operations have proven to be. The officers in charge of the four detachments were second lieutenants — company-grade officers anxious to lead and learn and prove themselves.

“We were functioning outside of our organic units. We were working with military police, chemical, and transportation personnel,” observed 2nd Lt. Jason Sullivan, who commanded the Metro Detachment based in Dorchester. “The networking is very important.”

“We had 65 certified drivers and we were driving 85 routes during the peak three or four weeks,” added 2nd Lt. James Crowley about the Northeast Detachment based in Reading. “I’m a second lieutenant, and I’m, in effect, running a company. We’re practicing leadership and providing a great service.”

Bob Haskell is a retired Maine Army National Guard master sergeant and a freelance journalist in Falmouth, Mass. He may be contacted at [email protected].