TAHOLAH, Wash. – While adjusting the volume on her walkie-talkie to compensate for a facial mask and the constant drizzle, 2nd Lt. Megan E. Zurliene pauses for a reply over the channel from one of her troops. Patiently waiting, she paces around the operations center at the Quinault Indian Nation Reservation. When the Soldier finally responds, she replies with instructions, then shoves the walkie-talkie into her cargo pant pocket, moving confidently onto the next task.
As the officer in charge of 15 other Washington National Guard members, Zurliene’s natural enthusiasm is well suited for the demands of the COVID-19 testing site on the Quinault reservation. Her team is testing more than 100 members per day, working long hours in HAZMAT suits, all the while safeguarding those they test, as well as themselves.
“The goal is to test over 2,000 people, which means we’ll end up testing every member of the tribe,” Zurliene said on May 20, the third day of full testing. “The first two days we focused on testing the tribe’s first responders and casino staff and we ended up working nearly 18 hours each day.”
It takes about three days to get the COVID-19 test results, so having the staff at the casino along with essential workers tested first was the initial focus for the National Guard testing staff. By the fourth day, they had completed almost 450 tests.
“Everyone out here on our team has been working at one of the drive-up test sites around the state, whether that was at Yakima, Aberdeen, Spokane or Bremerton, so this walk-up test site is flowing even better,” she said. “This mobile test site is amazing because, at the end of the day, you can pack, go somewhere else the next (day) and be right where it’s needed.”
In the two months since Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 23 “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” proclamation, the Guard members have been building on these lessons learned in the field as the pandemic spread throughout the state. Service members also bring varied skill sets from their civilian professions as they have been adapting on a day-by-day basis.
“In my civilian job, I run a Dog Daycare in Tacoma, so it’s completely different than what I am doing here,” Zurliene joked, drawing a curious parallel to overseeing her staff of Army and Air Guard members. “So running the business there means having over 125 dogs a day and working with their owners, who treat them as members of their family. Interestingly enough, that experience really helps now being the officer in charge here. I manage everyone in a similar way; it means organizing the team we have, it means coordinating the site, and getting the civilian side to mesh with the National Guard.”
Teamwork and compassion were critical to forming the relationship between the Washington National Guard and the Quinault Indian Nation. The tribe requested help through county and state emergency management officials in early April.
“We presented the proposal to the tribal council to have the [National] Guard come out to provide assistance with training our staff to test our members,” said M’Liss Dewald, functioning as the planning chief for the incident command team with the Quinault Indian Nation. In her full-time job, she is the education manager for the tribe, specializing in elementary and post-secondary education.
Before the testing team came, Dewald said three subject matter experts from the Washington National Guard spent nearly two weeks at the reservation.
“As a tribal nation, we are always cautionary about moving into a relationship with outside governmental agencies to include the military,” Dewald said.
“They went through our current testing site and gave us tips, feedback and provided training with our whole staff,” Dewald explained. “They gave us a very good education on what’s ‘hot, warm, and cold,’ and this included running two different testing models for feedback and additional specialized training to the staff. It was quite a blessing having them on site for those two weeks.”
Tribal leaders also came and observed the testing conducted by the National Guard at the Grays Harbor site in Aberdeen.
“Between the two experiences we had with the National Guard, and how culturally sensitive they were to our needs, it was really easy to ask for this request for assistance,” said Dewald.
This created the historic opportunity for the National Guard to begin testing on the Quinault Indian Nation Reservation in mid-May.
“I wanted all our members to try and interact with everyone coming to the testing site,” Zurliene said. “To really create a pleasant, more personable experience because it can be a bit intimidating at first, seeing every one of us in the TYVEK suits and all the extra personal protective equipment.”
The three Guard members working the shift were aware of this ‘first appearance’ as tribal families arrived to be tested.
“The tribal leaders wanted to give their families that extra level of reassurance,” she said. “When they go back to work, they’ll know that they aren’t harming anyone they might be working with and that they are safe to come back home at the end of the day.”
Dewald said “building this two-way street” has been contingent on respect and mutual understanding.
“It’s truly a partnership, and that’s really because of the leadership that’s running the testing site and include us in the process,” Dewald said.
“I would encourage other Nations to look into having the National Guard assistance in situations like this because it’s been a really good experience for us,” she said.
Touring the site on the fourth day of operations, Joint Task Force Commander Brig. Gen. Bryan Grenon met with tribal leaders while seeing how his troops were faring with the mission.
“The best thing about this current operation is that you are learning how we can help you not just now but also for other emergencies,” Grenon said to Quinault Tribal Chairman Fawn Sharp and Vice-Chairman Tyson Johnston.
“We’ve appreciated the assistance more than anything,” said Johnston. “I have heard nothing but good feedback; it’s allowing us to do all kinds of things from protecting our public health, to helping our nation restart its economy. You are helping us in a time of need.”
With a budding trust, Sharp asked Grenon about the National Guard’s structure for emergency operations now at the Quinault reservation. “Is this type of response typical to the ‘one weekend a month’ the National Guard prepares for?”
“The Guard has both the federal mission and a separate state mission,” Grenon said. “We work for the governor on national disasters from earthquakes, floods, and fighting forest fires. We’re responsible for developing the Cascadia Subduction Zone plan, which would not only affect Washington State but south to Oregon and up to British Columbia.”
Which is exactly what the Quinault Tribe has been preparing for with their lands adjoining the Pacific Ocean and tributary inland waterways.
“Here we have been preparing for an earthquake and a subsequent tsunami but we ended up with this (virus) outbreak,” said Sharp. “It turns out to be a dry run on how we can work together in emergency situations.”
“We’re grateful that we are able to establish a relationship, and to get to know each other now,” she said. “I have a feeling that this is not going to be the last time we may need the National Guard’s help.”
The seeds of a longer relationship have been planted during this response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“Three months ago I was planning a vacation for June,” said Zurliene. “Like most people, never in my life would I have thought I would be doing anything like this COVID-19 response.”
Yet, with a couple of days off heading into the Memorial Day weekend, Zurliene said the tribal members were organizing a special hike for the Guard members.
“Some of our people were thinking about heading home for a few days off, but nearly everyone now wants to stay. We are really connected here now through this mission, both to this place and the people.”