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Special Olympics Provides Cal Guard Valuable Training
by Brandon Honig, California National Guard - September 20, 2015

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LOS ANGELES - One morning during the Special Olympics World Games, three female soldiers peeked their heads into the John Wooden Center at UCLA to check on gymnastics equipment their unit had unloaded days earlier. The equipment was all set up and ready to go, but one woman in the gym appeared quite overwhelmed, as gymnasts had formed a large crowd around her.

July 26, 2015 - California Army National Guard Pfc. Cristina Villarruel, left, and Sgt. Angela Bracken found any way they could to assist with the Special Olympics World Games, including helping the gymnasts with their hair and makeup. (Courtesy photo by California National Guard)
July 26, 2015 - California Army National Guard Pfc. Cristina Villarruel, left, and Sgt. Angela Bracken found any way they could to assist with the Special Olympics World Games, including helping the gymnasts with their hair and makeup. (Courtesy photo by California National Guard)

“The woman, Anna, called us over and said, ‘I need your help!'” Sgt. Angela Bracken, of the Oroville-based 2668th Transportation Company, recalled. “We said, ‘What do you need help with?' And she asked, ‘You do hair? You do makeup?'”

It was the first time in their California National Guard careers the soldiers had received that request, but each had a few minutes to spare before returning to other missions.

“Next thing I know, we had been recruited into doing the hair and makeup each day and assisting with getting everybody prepared to go on stage,” said Bracken, who was working radio dispatch at the Wooden Center that day. “I wasn't sure how it would come across [to my unit], but everybody in my chain of command has been very supportive.”

The soldiers continued running other missions and completing all their previously assigned tasks, Bracken said, “But we were able to work as a team so we can also fill in and assist with this.”

In the long list of responsibilities Cal Guard soldiers and airmen were assigned to fulfill during the Special Olympics World Games, the hair-and-makeup mission was nowhere to be found, specifically. That fell under “general on-site support,” which troops were tasked to provide at all 13 athletic and housing locations throughout the Los Angeles region.

Most of the troops supporting the event were members of the Long Beach-based 224th Sustainment Brigade or its subordinate unit the 2668th Transportation Company, who made good use of their military skills such as logistics, warehousing and distribution. In addition, some soldiers and airmen were assigned to fulfill communication and emergency preparedness missions. Any troop, though, could be called on for “general on-site support,” which Lt. Col. Julian Bond said was a natural fit.

“Because the Army uniform is such a global image, no matter if an athlete or family member or delegate was from Syria or Iraq or wherever, they were used to getting help from uniformed service members, so it was natural for them to look to us anytime anyone needed assistance,” said Bond, the officer in charge of the California Military Department's (CMD) efforts to support the World Games. “It really touched me when Iraqi athletes were so happy to see the military uniform, because they're so used to seeing it in their home country.”

Guard members' civilian skills came in handy on many general-support missions, including interpreting several languages and troubleshooting audio-visual issues for the Closing Ceremony. Bond said soldiers found those opportunities to contribute because they were actively looking for ways to make the World Games a success.

“In addition to the expected professionalism and competence of your soldiers, I was personally impressed with the passion and intensity they displayed to work so hard in support of the Special Olympics athletes,” Jeff Carr, chief operating officer of the World Games Organizing Committee, wrote in a letter to California's adjutant general, Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin. “I personally witnessed a willingness to rise to whatever challenge we faced in every soldier and cadet I interacted with. ...

“Simply said, we could not have done it without them.”

Since 1968, the Special Olympics has given individuals with intellectual disabilities a unique opportunity to develop physical fitness, discover talents, demonstrate courage, grow confidence and enjoy competition, all while inspiring and educating those who witness their achievements. The 2015 World Games ran July 25 through Aug. 2, but Cal Guard members were busy performing logistics and other preparation long before the games began and continued support for weeks after they were completed.

Cal Guard officers began coordinating with World Games organizers two years before the event kicked off. Their efforts increased in February before hitting full stride in July and continuing through Aug. 28. In all, more than 500 service members and teenage Cadet Corps members contributed a combined 5,000 workdays.

In addition to the 224th and 2668th, the CMD support of the World Games included the 22-member 9th Civil Support Team (CST) and dozens of California State Military Reserve (CSMR) members. The CST is a joint Army/Air Force unit that specializes in identifying hazardous agents and advising responders how to save lives. The CSMR is a volunteer force dedicated to supporting the Cal Guard.

The largest CMD component on the ground at the World Games, though, was the California Cadet Corps, an educational and leadership-development program run by the CMD at high schools across the state. More than 200 cadets assisted the athletes with their bags and moved them into their dorms, delivered ice and cold beverages to athletes in competition, and, like their older counterparts, did whatever else they could to help out.

“They were always there on time with a positive attitude,” Bond said. “They are just remarkable youths that really showcased the youth of America. Everybody saw them not as youths, but as part of the solution.”

Carr said the cadets did a fantastic job, particularly when transportation challenges arose at one housing location, where the cadets' dedication and support enabled the mission to succeed.

He added that the CMD's overall support was a tremendous asset for the massive World Games, which hosted 8,500 athletes and coaches from 165 countries and attracted 350,000 spectators to 290 events.

Guard members' consistent dedication and high performance impressed the World Games' corporate partners as well. Rolf Pherigo, of UPS, who served as the World Games director of supply chain, said he has recommended to his human resources department that they look to hire some of the soldiers he worked alongside.

“The military folks I worked with here were precise, they were on time, they didn't make excuses, they performed and they had good follow-through — all the qualities [we look for],” he said. “When it gets tough out there, a lot of people run from it, and it seems that military people don't run. They stand tall and do what is asked of them. ... I personally enjoyed working with each and every member of the military at the World Games.”

The World Games provided a unique training environment for troops to exercise their transportation, communications, interagency coordination and leadership skills. But most said that's not what they'll remember most.

“It's the athletes that make it worth it,” said 2nd Lt. Andrew Tenorio, officer in charge of a Cal Guard team that managed bowlers' equipment for six days. “Just seeing them compete and how vibrant they are really makes it special.”

Tenorio's assignment at the bowling alley was not easy: It was “up tempo, back-and-forth, boom, boom, boom.” But he still managed to speak with about 100 athletes from 30 different countries during the six days. He made many new friends, gave out tons of hugs and photos, and even exchanged a few gifts.

“One of the New Zealander bowlers promised me she would bring me a kiwi — it's a bird that's a national symbol for New Zealand,” he remembered. “Later she brought it to me, a little figurine, and she gave me a hug. She's a lifelong friend now. I was like, ‘What more could I ask?'”

By Brandon Honig, California National Guard
Provided through DVIDS
Copyright 2015

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