BALTIMORE – Army Staff Sgt. Julius Austin, an electronic systems repairer with the Maryland Army National Guard’s 1297th Support Battalion, paced across the darkened loading dock. The bright utility lights of open semitruck trailers parked against the dock shone in brilliant contrast to the otherwise subdued platform area.
“These go next,” Austin said to another Soldier, pointing to a stack of boxes on pallets lined up alongside other near-identical containers.
The Soldier moved his hydraulic dolly in place under a pallet and pumped the handle to lift it from the dock. With a low grunt and quick tug of the dolly’s handle, he got the load moving as Austin went back to directing others offloading the trailers.
Austin and his fellow Soldiers were among approximately 100 Maryland Army Guard members setting up a federal medical station in the Baltimore Convention Center March 28 as part of COVID-19 response efforts.
“This is for our community,” said Austin.
The station provides backup space for local hospitals should they be overwhelmed with patients as the COVID-19 virus spreads.
It’s not the only area where the Maryland Army Guard is helping in response efforts.
“Our Soldiers are working across the state, working with local partners, federal partners and with different organizations to ensure we’re serving the community,” said Army Brig. Gen. Janeen L. Birckhead, head of the Maryland Army Guard, adding that Soldiers have also set up a COVID-19 mobile testing center and worked in area food banks to help distribute food to those who need it.
However, Birckhead stressed, the Soldiers aren’t in charge.
“We’re here in support of [civil] authorities,” she said. “We are not the authority.”
Setting up the beds and other items was in support of state and city health officials, said Birckhead.
As Soldiers off-loaded items from the trucks into the convention center, other Soldiers quickly got to work unpacking and setting up the 250-bed medical station.
“It’s a very big operation,” said Army Staff Sgt. Carlos Duncan, with the Maryland Army Guard’s 1729th Maintenance Company. “We’ve just got to get the pieces together. We’ve started to gel and everything is going together quickly.”
Setting up the beds may have been a fairly straightforward mission – unbox the beds and related equipment, assemble the component parts and put them in place on the convention center floor – but there were other considerations, said Duncan.
“They have to be a certain distance apart,” he said, referencing social distancing protocols. To ensure that, Soldiers with tape measures marked off the correct distance between beds.
Tables and chairs were also set up for patient use, as well as beds for those with mobility issues.
“We have special beds for those who may not be ambulatory,” said Duncan.
For Duncan, setting up the medical station and taking part in the COVID-19 response is an important mission.
“I feel that it’s important we play a part in this mission because it’s [COVID-19] affecting everyone,” he said. “There are no bystanders here.”
Duncan added that many in his unit felt similarly.
“There’s a lot of talk about it,” he said. “Everybody’s watching the news and they want to see how they can play a part. They’re pretty excited [to be part of response efforts].”
For Army Pfc. Anthony Killiebrew, a small arms and artillery repairer with Duncan’s unit, the COVID-19 response effort is his first large-scale, non-training mission.
“This mission, it makes me feel part of something, and we’re working together on a common cause,” he said. “It feels great to be part of the fight, knowing that you’re making a difference.”
It also brings challenges, said Killiebrew.
“There are really no physical challenges,” he said. “It’s more just hoping you don’t fail or get [sick] and fall out of the mission.”
But for Austin, the Soldier directing traffic on the loading dock, the COVID-19 mission is far from his first. He’s taken part in a number of previous state missions, as well as a deployment to Iraq in 2011.
That deployment, he said, gave him additional skills he’s using now.
“In Iraq, it was mostly planning and how to properly figure timelines for missions,” he said. “When it comes to something like this, it makes it relatively easy. You have this much time to do this; you need this much prep. It’s all about planning.”
Duncan, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, had a similar outlook.
“Every mission is important, whether you’re overseas or here in the homeland,” he said, adding that he stresses to younger Soldiers in his unit that supporting the state and the country is what they enlisted to do.
“This is one of the ways that we can show that, so the [public] can see what we do,” he said.
“It’s just an honor being here,” he said. “I’ve been in for almost 15 years. This is what I do.”