Constable: Without rifles or sandbags, Illinois National Guard saving lives

There are complaints and confusion about the process to get COVID vaccines, where to sign up, who can get them, and how you are going to feel after.

But one aspect of the mass vaccination plan seems to be operating smoothly - the Illinois National Guard.

Customer after customer has nice things to say about the men and women of the Guard.

"It was so well-organized," says one shot-recipient.

"They moved us through so quickly," says another.

"They know what they are doing," offers still another.

And members of the Guard, armed with clipboards, also are friendly, polite and helpful, which rubs off on the people waiting for the potentially lifesaving shots.

That's all just part of the training for those members of the Illinois National Guard and Illinois Air National Guard, who are working together.

"This is the first time we've been called out en masse for a pandemic," says Joint Task Force Cmdr. Col. Nick Babiak, who toured suburban vaccine centers Wednesday with his senior enlisted adviser, Command Sgt. Major Joe Cistaro.

The National Guard currently staffs 15 vaccination sites across Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties, including Batavia, Des Plaines, McHenry, River Grove, Tinley Park, South Holland and the soon-to-open Forest Park location.

Nearly 1,000 soldiers and more than 300 members of the Air Guard are working side by side with federal, state and local officials at more than 100 sites across Illinois. Health officials literally call the shots, but the Guard members have played a role in vaccinating more than a half-million people, says Babiak, who started this assignment Feb. 4. Cistaro joined the operation four days later.

We generally see the National Guard when troops are called in to help during floods, after tornadoes or before potentially violent protests. Saving lives in a vaccination program can be just as rewarding, if not more so.

"They're citizen soldiers who have jobs in the local community, they go to school in the local community, and belong to organizations in the local community," Babiak says. "This is a unique opportunity to serve your own community."

If the assignment takes these citizen soldiers too far from home, they stay in hotels.

A Chicago police officer who has spent 29 years on the force, Cistaro says he enjoys the praise coming the Guard's way.

"I understand when I wear the blue uniform, I get a different response than when I wear a green uniform," Cistaro says, noting police generally arrive after people call them because something bad has happened. "In this case, they're coming to us, and we're there to help."

Older than our nation, the National Guard started on Dec. 13, 1636, when a Massachusetts General Court declaration established three regiments to defend against enemy attacks and preserve settlements near the town of Salem, says Cistaro, who will celebrate his 33rd anniversary with the Guard in May.

"They are trained to follow orders and adapt," Babiak says of the combined forces. "Each one is assigned to a station. It's almost like a factory line."

While the assignment always is about lending support and following orders, members of the joint force have contributed ideas on how to do things better, Babiak says. One station had problems with inclement weather and a bottleneck of cars, so a Guard member came up with the idea of establishing a radio frequency to sequence the appointments.

"These were process improvements they came up with. It's been an evolution of sorts," Babiak says. "As long as they do this, the Guard will be there."

It's not as exciting as combat missions, riot patrols, floods, hurricanes or tornadoes, but Babiak says National Guard members aren't complaining about vaccine duty.

"I don't think they mind that they're not filling sandbags," Babiak says. "They are happy to serve the people."

  During a visit from Col. Nick Babiak, center, 2nd Lt. Jonathan Mercado, left, explains how National Guard members have helped vaccinate more than 30,000 people at a former Kmart in Des Plaines. Mark Welsh/
  Members of the Illinois National Guard have helped vaccinate more than 500,000 people against the coronavirus. Mark Welsh/
  Sgt. Major Joe Cistaro takes notes during his conversation with 2nd Lt. Jonathan Mercado, right, as Col. Nick Babiak observes during a visit Wednesday with 115 National Guard members at a mass vaccination site in Des Plaines. Mark Welsh/
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