CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The second floor of the U.S. Army Reserve building may seem at first glance like an unassuming office space.
Within that space, however, resides a unit that plays a crucial role in the health and success of the West Virginia National Guard and ensures the safety of West Virginians during the COVID-19 pandemic: the West Virginia Army National Guard Medical Detachment, or MEDDET.
“While our primary mission is always medical readiness for our troops, over the past year, MEDDET has been actively engaged in COVID-19 response efforts throughout the state,” said Lt. Col. Gerald Clark, MEDDET commander. “From manning hotlines to overseeing testing events to administering vaccines, our members have been at the very forefront of the pandemic response here in West Virginia."
The COVID response has meant long hours, lots of weekends and thousands of miles on the road. But it is a mission members of the unit have embraced with dedication and enthusiasm.
“We’ve swabbed a couple people and gave a few shots,” Lt. Col. John Snedegar, MEDDET training officer, said with a laugh. Snedegar is a registered nurse and, like many other Guard members, has been on COVID orders for more than a year.
“There was a lot of fear because we didn’t know anything about COVID,” Snedegar said. “As the virus was becoming a problem in other states, MEDDET sent people to man the COVID hotline at the Poison Control Center in Charleston and we put people on state active duty. At that time, we had the most up-to-date information and people were calling with questions about COVID but also asking what to do as they began to lose their jobs and have financial trouble.”
Although Snedegar and his crew spent weeks learning about the new disease and preparing to respond, it wasn’t until the first positive test on March 17, 2020, that the threat became real.
“Until then, COVID was a distant thing and West Virginia felt like it had a barrier around it,” Snedegar said. “I can recall getting the first case in Charleston and sitting at the COVID hotline at Charleston Area Medical Center - Memorial and thinking, ‘COVID is literally 100 yards from where I’m sitting.’ Little did we know how this would evolve over the coming months.”
As the COVID situation developed, Gov. Jim Justice established the Joint Interagency Task Force for COVID-19 Vaccines, comprised of state government leaders, private sector partners and the WVNG. The Guard and the West Virginia Emergency Management Division were responsible for receiving, storing and distributing vaccines to pharmacies, local health departments and others, along with personal protective equipment to help keep Soldiers safe when administering tests and vaccines.
MEDDET personnel tested West Virginians across the state for COVID using nasal swabs and saliva testing. He credits the Guard’s ability to mobilize in getting tests to all parts of the state, rural and urban.
“The Guard brings logistic ability that civilian agencies don’t have,” Snedegar said. “We bring the ability to mobilize people and to make things happen, as well as the practical experience and subject-matter expertise to accomplish the mission efficiently and professionally.”
Although MEDDET has received a lot of attention because of COVID response, the unit has a long history with the National Guard.
“It’s been around for quite a while, but not with that name,” said Snedegar, who has worked with the unit for about 14 years.
Originally known as DET 5 Stark, the unit’s name was changed to Medical Command in 2007 or 2008 and then to MEDDET. There are plans to change the name to the Medical Readiness Detachment, which better reflects its primary military mission of keeping Soldiers healthy and preparing them for deployment.
“Medical readiness equals Soldier readiness,” Clark said. “If you’re not medically fit, you can’t deploy and you aren’t ready for the warfight. So that’s a key part of where we fit into the big picture for both our state and federal missions.”
As the unit’s name has evolved, so has its operations. Although MEDDET has always focused on medical readiness, the way medical personnel working in the unit accomplish that goal has changed.
“There used to be only two people in the unit throughout the week when we were just training and there wasn’t a lot of business, so to speak,” Snedegar said.
“Over time, as the mission has changed and there’s been a greater need for Soldiers to deploy, our footprint has grown quite a bit. Our job went from making sure people were healthy and fit enough to stay in the Guard to what we have today, which is having medically ready Soldiers, whether it’s a mission overseas or maybe a state mission like a flood or natural disaster or COVID, so it’s changed quite a bit. As the mission changes, we adapt to that.”
MEDDET provides annual medical and dental evaluations and administers vaccinations and screenings. It also operates Combat Medic, Tactical Combat Casualty Care, Field Sanitation and Hearing Conservation courses for Guard members. In addition, the unit provides free CPR and automatic external defibrillator training to Guard members.
MEDDET also helps Soldiers handle mental health issues and helps Soldiers control their weight and stay physically fit.