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Employer support critical to South Carolina National Guard’s COVID response

  • Published
  • By Lt.Col. Jim St.Clair
  • 169th Fighter Wing/Public Affairs

Since March, the South Carolina National Guard has mobilized nearly 500 Soldiers and Airmen to augment local authorities’ medical response to COVID-19. These service members have temporarily left their civilian jobs and Families while performing their military duty. The support they receive from their civilian employers is crucial to being able to perform vital missions across the state.

Two such employers, the Veterans Affairs Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) in Morehead City, North Carolina and Lexington Medical Center Saluda Pointe in Lexington, South Carolina, employ U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jennifer Wagner and U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jennifer Heller, respectively. Wagner and Heller are both U.S. Air National Guard Airmen with the South Carolina Air National Guard (SCANG) and have been on active duty orders since early May.

“Our Guard [members] have unique talents and skillsets they bring with them from their civilian careers. When they are called up for military duty, it can be a challenge and is sometimes difficult to change hats from a civilian career to a military career and back again. That’s why ESGR [Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve] works with and is grateful for the support provided by their civilian employers, so that the service member can feel secure in the knowledge that he or she is fully supported while on military duty,” said Pamela McFarland, South Carolina ESGR Program Support specialist. ESGR was established in 1972 to promote cooperation and understanding between reserve component service members and their civilian employers and to assist in the resolution of conflicts arising from an employee's military commitment.

Wagner and Heller are 169th Medical Group aerospace medical technicians. Some of the medical missions they have participated in so far include providing health screenings to inmates at the Allendale Correctional Institution, providing medical support to South Carolina Army National Guard Soldiers delivering meals to citizens in Horry County and Myrtle Beach, and leading the South Carolina National Guard’s Medical Strike Team, which is performing COVID-19 community testing. Most recently Wagner and Heller launched to the Tyger River Correctional Institution to battle a COVID-19 hotspot there.

“Our job here couldn’t be successful without the people we have working with us. So I have to give props to the Army Guard,” Heller explained.

For the Tyger River mission, National Guard medics, including Wagner and Heller, are paired with general purpose Soldiers (who take notes), to see the inmates twice a day.

“We go in every morning and afternoon and take a temperature, pulse, and oxygen level of the inmates. Anything that comes up as abnormal we let the nurses know and they will go back and do a full assessment on them and swab them to see if they are COVID-19 positive. If they’re positive, they’re taken out their dorm and placed in a dorm that’s set aside specifically for positive cases,” Wagner said.

The VA supports Master Sgt. Jennifer Wagner

Wagner works as a nurse at the Morehead City VA CBOC. “The CBOC is like the family practice for the VA. General medicine and primary care,” Wagner explained.

Wagner has worked at the CBOC for just over a year. “She came into a Family and she fit right in; being flexible and understanding that you may not work in the same area every day. Not everyone can handle that but she handled it really well. All the experience she brought from the Air Guard, it’s just been very, very beneficial to our clinic,” said Marion Cumbo, Wagner’s boss and the nurse manager at the CBOC.

After COVID-19 infections started spiking statewide, Wagner figured it was only a matter of time before she might be mobilized. When Wagner was notified, time was short.

“We got called on a Friday to report on Monday. They said it was in support of the COVID mission. When I called [my supervisor] and told her I was just notified, she said they were kind of expecting it because they knew I was in the Guard. She was like ‘Okay. Be safe and send me orders when you can,” Wagner said.

Cumbo remembers when she got Wagner’s phone call. “Let me tell you why this gave me chills. It was Mother’s Day weekend. And so she had to report the day after Mother’s Day which means she had to leave on Mother’s Day. And I remember my heart just dropping for her because I felt exactly how she was feeling,” Cumbo said.

Wagner had some misgivings about leaving her team at the clinic a person short during her call up. But Cumbo explained, “I reassured her and told her that we’re praying for her and we support her. I tried to reassure her that she’s still serving in the mission taking care of the veterans. You’re still taking care of the community wherever you may be. So we’ll support you in any way. If there’s anything we can do for you or your Family we’re going to do that for you.”

Wagner and Cumbo have been keeping in touch regularly. The frequent updates from Wagner have lifted the spirits of the co-workers she had to leave behind.

“I’ll tell you one thing that really made my day. We’ve been texting back and forth and asking ‘How is it going? We’re thinking about you guys. We’re so proud of you’ and so on. Well, I was so proud to receive a link to a short video about the mission and [Wagner] was in the video. She texted me and said ‘If y’all are wondering what I’m doing, here’s a clip.’ So I shared it in our staff meeting and you should have seen all the expressions from all the nurses. The Morehead City staff just lit right up,” Cumbo said.

Wagner said she has no worries about returning to work after her military orders end.

“[The VA] is very supportive and I am grateful for that because when I go back I know I’m going to have that ‘warm fuzzy’ when I get there. I am just grateful that I have the employer that I do and the small group of people that I work with and how supportive they are of me. I think it’s an awesome group,” Wagner said.

Lexington Medical Center supports Staff Sgt. Jennifer Heller

Heller works as a nurse at Lexington Medical Center Saluda Pointe, an urgent care and imaging facility that’s part of Lexington Medical Center’s network of care. She started her job there in February.  

Heller’s boss, Sarah Stitely, is the manager at Lexington Medical Center Saluda Pointe. Heller and Stitely had previously worked together in the emergency room at Lexington Medical Center.

“We’re glad that [Heller’s] on board here. She’s is a very hard worker. She’s reliable, dependable. There’s never a question that things are going to get done appropriately and correctly when she’s here. She’s great with her patients. Great customer service. Very warm. She fit right in with the staff at this location,” Stitely said.

Heller’s military experience is beneficial for her civilian employer too.

“For Jennifer, and others that I’ve worked with from a military background, tend to have a better ability adapting to a variety of situations. In urgent care, as well as the emergency department, you never know what’s going to come in the door. So they are well suited for that environment. Jennifer will jump in and do whatever is needed,” Stitely said.

Like her SCANG teammate, Heller also had a short-notice call up experience. Fortunately, the support of her employer has really made a difference.

“I couldn’t do my job without the support of my Family and my employer back home. That makes it easier for me to focus on my mission here,” Heller explained.

One special benefit Lexington Medical Center granted Heller, as well as other Guard members and Reservists, is 15 days of paid leave to help cover the time between when her orders start and her first military paycheck kicks in.

“Of course the goal of that is to help them through that time and not make it any sort of financial hardship,” Stitely said.

Stitely has been corresponding with Heller regularly and making sure she’s in the loop for upcoming job opportunities.

“We primarily keep in touch via text message. And [Heller’s] been keeping us updated as to what’s going on. We have a position that is opening up while she’s gone. So I made sure she’s aware of that too so she would have that same opportunity. And I know multiple members of the team have been reaching out to her to make sure if there’s anything we can do,” Stitely explained.

Unless their orders are extended, Wagner and Heller will be returning to their civilian jobs in August.

In the meantime, Stitely said, “We have definitely missed [Heller]. Luckily we have a great team that’s stepped up. We are glad she’s doing what she’s doing. We know it’s definitely needed. But we’ll be happy to have her back with us. Hopefully sooner than later.” 

And Cumbo chimed in and said, “I know one thing, we miss [Wagner]. We’re so proud of her. Her team misses her. Her patients miss her.”