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Wisconsin Guard marks first anniversary of COVID response

  • Published
  • By Vaughn R. Larson
  • Department of Military Affairs

MADISON, Wis. – Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency in Wisconsin one year ago, a day after the World Health Organization said COVID-19 had become a pandemic.

"What a year," Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, Wisconsin's adjutant general, said during a March 12 ceremony commemorating the anniversary. "Think about where we were one year ago."

The governor's emergency declaration cleared the way for the Wisconsin National Guard to be called to active duty if needed, and the need came quickly. Approximately 30 Soldiers and Airmen were called to state duty, to be ready to ferry home 37 Wisconsin residents arriving at Volk Field from a cruise ship with confirmed cases of coronavirus. The Wisconsin cruise passengers had not been diagnosed with COVID and self-quarantined for 14 days once home.

"It wasn't a time for us to shelter in place and ride out the storm," Knapp said. "It was a call to action."

Shortly after that, a few Wisconsin National Guard members were dispatched to assist at a senior living facility in Grafton that was short on staff due to cases of COVID at the facility. The Wisconsin National Guard also began planning to support polling stations across the state, as "safer at home" guidance and concerns over the pandemic limited volunteers' availability for the April 7 election. Thousands of Guard members would eventually assist election officials throughout the year.

"I am incredibly grateful for the selfless dedication of the Wisconsin National Guard," Evers said. "Not only have they been a tremendous resource during this unprecedented time in our history, but they have provided tremendous assurance that the state of Wisconsin is doing everything within its power to respond to this health crisis."

In addition to the real threat the pandemic posed, the Wisconsin National Guard had to answer imagined threats as false rumors began circulating that the Guard was mobilizing to shut down interstate highways and enforce a statewide quarantine.

Guard members staffed a distribution warehouse for personal protective equipment and helped set up and staff a voluntary self-isolation facility in Milwaukee. Soon, Guard members began to staff mobile specimen collection sites across the state and operate a call center informing residents if they tested positive or negative.

The 115th Fighter Wing mobilized its fatality search and recovery team in April to assist medical examiners across the state with mortuary operations. The fighter wing also paid tribute to health care workers and first responders across the state on May 12 with a flyover of four F-16 Fighting Falcons. The 128th Air Refueling Wing assisted.

By mid-May, more than 600 Guard members staffed 25 specimen collection teams across the state to support the state Department of Health Services' COVID response.

A week before Christmas, the Wisconsin National Guard helped the state manage inventory of the first vaccine shipments to Wisconsin. In the first week of 2021, the Guard administered its one-millionth COVID-19 test – a milestone in the state's testing effort. The Guard, in collaboration with state and local health officials, launched a mobile vaccination program Jan. 19. Those vaccination teams have helped administer approximately 35,000 vaccines statewide.

Spc. Brandon Mueller, a combat medic with Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment, is helping local communities with their vaccine sites.

"We're helping with anything they need, so we can work in the front reception area," Mueller said. "We can help people through doors. We can help in the observation area. We can do anything that the public health asks us to. It feels good being able to serve my community."

Tech. Sgt. Tyler Schmitz can attest to the diverse assistance the Wisconsin National Guard has provided. He helps direct aircraft as a member of the 128th Air Control Squadron at Volk Field but is serving as a mobile vaccination team leader.

"This is definitely outside my vault," he acknowledged. "I'm assigned to go to different sites such as this one here in Greendale and assign my team to tasks to help out the local health departments accomplish the mission of getting people vaccinated."

Schmitz has noticed a definite attitude shift from specimen collection sites, where he had previously been assigned, to vaccination sites.

"None of the people coming wanted to really be swabbed," he said, referring to the technique used to collect a specimen from the back of a person's throat. "I like the vaccination side just because it's a lot more cheerful. People are just so much happier to be here. A lot of these over 75, over 65-year-olds, this is the first time they've been able to get out of the house and they can get the vaccination, see their families. So I definitely really enjoy this compared to the swab site."

Spc. Logan Nguyen, a horizontal construction engineer with Company B, 173rd Engineer Battalion, has been part of the Wisconsin National Guard COVID response task force since May.

"It's been a really important mission," Nguyen said. "It's pretty crazy that we're going past a year in this. … I'm glad it's like the light at the end of the tunnel with vaccines. We're starting to see the end, towards being normal again."

Dr. Darrell Williams, Wisconsin Emergency Management administrator, who spent some of his 29 years of military service with the Wisconsin National Guard, said he was "incredibly proud to see the Wisconsin National Guard out there, with professionalism at all times, sometimes putting your life on the line to keep Wisconsin safe. You've lived up to your motto, 'Always Ready, Always There.'"

Knapp likened the Guard response to a marathon.

"We're getting close to the end," the adjutant general said, "but we have a few miles left to go."