BALTIMORE – Sgt. Ronnie Ricks has a small problem – about a half inch, to be exact. That’s all he needs to get the last pallet of food to fit on the back of his cargo truck.

“Back it up!” he called out to the Soldier operating the forklift. “Now bring it in, but angle left.”

The situation isn’t anything new to Ricks, a truck driver with the Maryland Army National Guard’s 1229th Transportation Company. When the pallet still didn’t fit, he calmly called out again to the Soldier on the forklift.

“Back it out again!” he shouted, motioning to the other Soldier to reverse. “Come in slow, but crank it left. Hard left. Keep turning.”

It took backing out and re-angling a few times, but soon enough, the pallet slid into place on the back of Rick’s medium tactical vehicle, barely squeezing past the pallet to its right.

“There we go,” Ricks said, motioning to the forklift driver to drop the load. Once the pallet was gently placed on the truck bed, the forklift backed up and other Soldiers got to work securing the truck’s tailgate.

The final pallet on the truck meant another load of food was ready to be distributed to Baltimore residents who need it; all part of the unit’s contribution to COVID-19 response efforts.

“It took a little while,” Ricks observed, “but we’ve got it down pretty much to a science where we can get just about 240 meals on the truck.”

Once loaded, Soldiers take the supplies to schools and recreation centers throughout the city. From there, other Soldiers distribute the meals to those who need them, using drive- or walk-through lanes set up at each location.

“We went to schools yesterday,” Ricks said. “Today it’s rec centers. It’s just good to help out people in your community.”

For some in the unit, based out of the Lt. Col. Melvin H. Cade Armory in Baltimore’s Rosemont neighborhood, the COVID-19 response effort can be very personal.

“Most of the people in the 1229th are from the Baltimore area,” said Ricks, who has seen neighbors and others he knows come through the lines while he’s been on duty at the distribution sites.

“If they can’t get out (to grocery stores), then we’re just helping them out,” he said.

Others in the unit agreed.

“I feel like I have a purpose here, knowing that I’m doing something for somebody,” said Sgt. Justin Tilman, also a truck driver with the unit.

Distributing food isn’t the only mission the unit has taken part in since coming on duty in early March. Unit members have also transported personal protective equipment to area hospitals and moved other medical equipment throughout Maryland. For Tilman, the start of those missions is marked by a significant personal milestone.

“It was right after my birthday,” he said. “The next week we were gone – on the road, left and right, here and there, nonstop.”

Much of that time behind the wheel has meant navigating city streets, which can sometimes be tricky in a large cargo truck.

“It gives a lot of our troops additional driving experience,” said Ricks, adding that safety is paramount while on the road.

For many of the Soldiers, another significant challenge isn’t narrow city streets; it’s offloading the meals at the schools and rec centers. “We don’t have forklifts out there,” Tilman explained. “When we get to the location, (offloading is) all by hand.”

That means unloading each individual box onboard, rather than moving the pallet itself in one movement. For Ricks, though, that pales in comparison to the feelings of isolation brought on by the need for minimized human contact.

“I’m a person, just like everybody else, going through this,” he said, referring to the COVID-19 outbreak. “So, to me, it would be social distancing – not seeing my parents, my family members.”

What helps is the Soldiers in the unit being a tight-knit group, which somewhat makes up for not seeing family. “This (mission) has built a lot of camaraderie throughout the 1229th,” he said. “That’s pretty great.”

That’s also made it easier getting the mission accomplished, he added.

“It’s nice and smooth; everything just runs down the road,” he said. “Everything is great.”

Which makes Ricks glad to be part of response efforts.

“I’m happy we actually got the mission,” he said. “It shows we’re not just there in the back. We’re actually here to help people. We’re here to help our own neighborhoods.”

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