Cal Guard welder sews face masks to combat COVID-19

U.S. Army Sgt. Edwin Rodriguez, a welder at the California National Guard's Combined Support Maintenance Shop, sews face masks for other Soldiers on a vintage sewing machine, April 23, 2020, inside the Long Beach, California, facility. Rodriguez found and repaired two of the shop's three vintage sewing machines before putting his civilian skills as a former upholstery technician to work sewing masks. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew Ramelb)

LONG BEACH, Calif. — It’s not the usual scene one expects in a U.S. Army maintenance shop.

While the air is filled with the scent of diesel and most Soldiers are busy turning wrenches underneath military vehicles, operating forklifts, or repairing generators, one lone service member is hard at task operating a seemingly out of place piece of equipment — a sewing machine, tucked away in the back of the shop.

Scraps of fabric and thread litter the green table and beneath the clatter of wrenches and heavy machinery, the thrum of the sewing machine is faintly heard.

Sgt. Edwin Rodriguez is a full-time welder for the California Army National Guard’s Combined Support Maintenance Shop (CSMS) in Long Beach, but today his attention is focused on nimbly working a piece of black cloth through the needle of the sewing machine.

The entire process takes less than three minutes he mentions, as he gestures to the newly created cloth mask that will help protect his fellow service members from COVID-19.

“Sewing is the easy part,” he says. “I’d say cutting and cleaning takes the most time.”

Rodriguez, who also serves as a wheeled vehicle mechanic with 1st Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment, 40th Combat Aviation Brigade, based at nearby Joint Forces Training Base, Los Alamitos, has sewn over 90 masks for fellow Soldiers since COVID-19 began to influence uniform standards. The Department of Defense, along with the California National Guard, now requires service members to include face coverings as part of their personal protective equipment when physical distancing cannot be achieved.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Ben Johnson and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mark T. Bun, both California National Guard technicians who work with Rodriguez, approached the Compton native with the idea of making masks for their fellow Soldiers.

“Sgt. Rodriguez has always been outgoing and willing to support anybody who needs help, whether it be at drill or here at the shop,” said Johnson, an allied trade supervisor with the CSMS.

After guidelines required the use of face masks to help slow the spread of the virus, Bun, the CSMS foreman, began thinking of ways he and his Soldiers could help out those without access to their own personal protective equipment.

Bun consulted with his mother, an avid sewer, to create a prototype based off Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifications. He showed the design to Rodriguez and they began crafting a plan to create the masks for troops in need, he said.

“I asked him if he could start sewing some stuff for us to protect the Soldiers. That’s the least we could do, make them feel safer here and give them peace of mind,” Bun said.

Sewing machines, although aren’t commonly thought of as maintenance shop equipment, are occasionally used to repair Humvee doors, said Rodriguez.

While Rodriguez knew the CSMS had three 40-year-old sewing machines, he also knew some hadn’t been used in years. After bringing them down from storage, he discovered only one of the machines in working order, he said.

“They are 30 to 40 years old, they are antiques,” Rodriguez said.

After repairing two of the three sewing machines, Rodriguez began sewing, using his civilian skills as a former upholstery technician, while Johnson and Bun went to work gathering fabric donations of t-shirts and trousers from the Maneuver Area Training Equipment Shop (MATES), based out of Fort Irwin, as well as the 118th Maintenance Company in Stockton, in order to create the masks.

While making the masks, Rodriguez noticed an issue when sewing the fabric together. He solved the dilemma by adding a layer of gauze within the fabric, he said.

“He’s extremely creative, he’s able to think on a different level on how to make something and repair something” said Johnson, a Palmdale native.

The masks created by Rodriguez have been distributed to California Guard Soldiers working at the CSMS, MATES, and the 118th Maintenance Company facility.

While sewing fabric may not be his usual duty at the maintenance shop, Rodriguez is simply happy to use his skills to help his fellow service members.

“It makes me feel good,” he said. “If I can help them then why not?”