CINCINNATI, Ohio — Months into the longest deployment of his career an Ohio national guardsman got to celebrate an unexpected honor.
Since late March, the Ohio National Guard has been serving at Cincinnati’s Freestore Food Bank. Lt. Zachary Cook has been leading the charge.
“We’ve been called up before for hurricanes, for floods, stuff like that but this is something a little more unique I will admit,” he said. “It’s something where it’s a need and we’re going to be able to step in and fill that need.”
According to Freestore’s Chief Development Officer Trisha Rayner, coronavirus concerns have left the food bank low on volunteers while facing an unprecedented demand.
“We have distributed nearly 13 million meals, and that is double what we would normally do,” Rayner said. “The National Guard has helped us do that, and we have increased just dramatically on how we deliver food to people with their support.”
With a job this big, Lt. Cook said it helps to have a standout soldier on his team.
“There’s a reason why he won NCO of the year and this mission is a demonstration of why he deserved that win,” he said.
Sgt. Ben Noble has been at Freestore since the mission began. For him, joining the National Guard meant answering a calling to serve his country and his state.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to be in the military and it seemed like the best opportunities for me were in the army,” he said.
Noble said he’s ready to fulfill that mission overseas as well as in his backyard.
“It’s cool to be able to help people that you know or the people you work with know,” he said.
During his time responding to the coronavirus crisis, Noble said he’s developed a new set of skills and perspective.
“We’ll go out and then people will come through in a line, and we’ll give them the boxes that we make here or sometimes we’ll have produce or meat that goes with it,” he said. “And it’s very cool to see the people that the food goes to, how appreciative they are.”
Beyond the food bank though, Noble has had plenty of opportunities to put his skills to the test.
“I put in an application and I was selected as the squadron and the brigade best warrior,” he said.
That meant Noble got to put that title to the test at the state’s “Best Warrior” competition, competing with other guardsmen and women from across the state.
“We’re refining the basic skills that we need to have down pat to be able to do our jobs correctly,” he said.
That included tests of strength, agility and drills involving service to their fellow soldiers.
“He has been excellent at being able to do any job that was given to him,” Cook said.
That’s why he said Noble’s newest title didn’t come as a surprise to him, though it did surprise Noble.
“When they read that off it was kind of interesting,” he said. “Kind of like, man, what do I need to do to get ready for the next one kind of moment.”
Now Noble is Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year in Ohio and will get to compete with other standouts from states across the midwest in the hopes of landing a national title.
“He’s got a really good chance and he’s been an excellent NCO here and I have no doubt that he’ll be able to do very well in the competition,” Lt. Cook said.
In the meantime, Noble is staying with his team, continuing to serving at the food bank in the hopes of becoming a better soldier with each Ohio family served.
“I’ve been able to do some pretty amazing things,” he said.
The National Guard has not yet set a date for the next phase of the “Best Warrior” competition but Noble will continue to train over the next few months while continuing his deployment responsibilities.
The National Guard will remain at the Freestore Food Bank as long as they are needed.