ARLINGTON, Va. – As the National Guard surpassed 6 million COVID-19 vaccinations administered to the public this week, Soldiers and Airmen reflected on their contributions to the pandemic fight and the partnerships formed.
“Each vaccination administered decreases the chance of another American dying from COVID-19,” Army Col. Larry D. Fletcher, deputy director of the National Guard Bureau Office of the Joint Surgeon, said during a video conference April 7. These Guard members embedded in the communities, he added, “are truly our Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen.”
About 2,250 Guard members are “putting shots in arms every single day,” Fletcher said.
Spc. Garett Rollag is one of the Soldiers on the front lines of the vaccination effort. The combat medic with the Nebraska Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 134th Infantry Regiment, said many patients not only showered him with “thank-yous” but expressed relief after getting inoculated.
“I’ve seen a lot of people kind of choke up a little bit and get teary-eyed,” Rollag said. “Some were getting the shot to attend the funeral of someone who passed away from COVID, and lot of elderly folks said, ‘Now I can visit my children or my grandchildren again.’”
Rollag said giving the shot continues to be just as satisfying.
“It’s really gratifying to see that reaction out of people,” he said.
Army Staff Sgt. Shavonne Santiago, also a combat medic, agreed.
“I don’t think any Soldiers on my team have not come to work with a smile or the compassion or passion to be here,” she said. “If they are having a tough day, if they are a little homesick, seeing a smile on that person’s face they just vaccinated — I think it flips that maybe cranky morning self back to a happy afternoon self.”
Santiago, a noncommissioned officer in charge for the medical section of the Massachusetts Army National Guard’s 101st Engineer Battalion, said the vaccination mission is an eye-opening experience for younger Soldiers.
“This is something they get to do versus a simulated training or notional training event — it’s real life,” she said. “So when they had that question of, ‘Why am I doing that?’ now they have that why. It’s for exactly what we are doing right here.”
Rollag and Santiago have personally inoculated thousands of people — including their grandmothers.
“With her being 74, it was very important for me to educate her on the whole vaccination process,” Santiago said. “Now we can spend time together, share those hugs and all of that love without fear of her potentially contracting the virus and possibly being deathly ill.”
But with the current rate of vaccinations at about 142,000 civilians daily, Guard members can’t do it alone.
“We have learned from the past year, and through the launch of the vaccine mission, it is a team effort,” said Fletcher. “The partnerships — with FEMA, Health and Human Services, the U.S. Public Health Service as well as state and local governments — ensure that we meet mission requirements.”
Those partnerships also help ensure vaccinations remain an option for remote and underserved populations, said Air Force Col. Russell W. Kohl, commander of the Missouri Air National Guard’s 131st Medical Group.
“Since the very beginning, we have had a very high emphasis on health equity,” he said. “We’ve really focused our teams and activities on rural areas that essentially have no local health care infrastructure and then move into underserved populations — particularly in urban St. Louis and Kansas City.”
Army Brig. Gen. Adam Flasch, director of the Maryland National Guard Joint Force Headquarters, said partnering with community-health stakeholders to help bridge “the health care divide” is paying off.
“We have a more than 60 percent rate of vaccination for members of those underserved communities,” he said.
Mobile vaccination teams that travel to small and often underserved communities have been key, too, Fletcher said.
“This effort allows states and partner agencies to reach some of our most vulnerable populations,” he said.
But more work needs to be done, Kohl said, as evidenced by the more than 31,500 Guard members supporting the response to the pandemic.
“For the National Guard, there has never been an ‘end of mission,’” Kohl said. “We finish one mission and we go back home to our civilian jobs. But the next time our community needs us, we are right here again.”