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New Jersey Guard Airmen ride the highs, lows of COVID-19 response

U.S. Air Force Airmen, assigned to the 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey National Guard, support COVID-19 humanitarian response operations in Atlantic City, New Jersey, July, 13, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by  Sgt. 1st Class Wayne Woolley)

U.S. Air Force Airmen, assigned to the 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey National Guard, support COVID-19 humanitarian response operations in Atlantic City, New Jersey, July, 13, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Wayne Woolley)

ATLANTIC CITY , N.J. -- Over the past few months, they’ve been called Task Force Vineland, Task Force Edison Task Force Millstone and now, most recently, Task Force Atlantic City.

But by any name, this group of New Jersey National Guard Airmen has found itself in the center of the state’s military response to COVID-19. It’s been a three-month journey that’s sent their emotions from the highest highs to the lowest lows and everywhere in between.

“It’s been quite an experience,” said Chief Master Sgt. Harry Johnson, as he stood in the cavernous Atlantic City Convention Center floor where members of his team were working on their latest mission, breaking down a 250-bed facility that was part of a temporary statewide coronavirus treatment network.

The mission for this diverse group of about two dozen Airmen from the 177th Fighter Wing began with their mobilization in May to help with patient needs at the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs Veterans Memorial Home in Vineland. From there, the group, whose military occupational specialties run the gamut from logistics, to maintenance to transportation, headed to the state’s Field Medical Station in Edison to break down the 500-bed temporary medical facility that handled overflow COVID-19 cases in the spring. From there, the team headed to Millstone, where they dismantled a temporary morgue that was one of three the state established as the virus peaked in the Spring. The temporary field hospital in Atlantic City has been the most recent stop.

For Senior Airman Julian Alicea, a communication specialist, the mission in Vineland was the most gratifying. Nearly everything the Airmen were asked to do was directly related to helping residents cope with the isolation created by the coronavirus. The Airmen arranged for “window visits” where they could safely get close to the family members they couldn’t actually touch. Alicea said one of the best parts of his day was helping residents use their phones and tablets to make video calls to family members.

“I’ve been in two years and it was definitely the highlight. I felt like I was really making an impact in my community,” he said. “A lot of the residents there are war heroes … a lot of them are like family to me now.”

Alicea said he still keeps in touch with several of the residents.

Tech. Sgt. Maria Mina said that while there were plenty of emotional highs for her on the mission, she won’t forget the experience taking apart the temporary morgue.

“When you’re involved in a mission like that, you can’t help but think of all the people we lost,” she said.

Still, Mina, who has deployed overseas twice in a military career that’s spanned nearly 20 years, said the mission assisting her friends and neighbors has been the most gratifying and closest to why she joined the National Guard in the first place.

Her parents emigrated to the United States from Columbia in hopes of providing a better life for her family, she said.

“This is my way of thanking America for the opportunity it’s given me,” she said. “I feel very proud to be able to serve.”

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