VINELAND, N.J. – James Dow watches as U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Edward D. Simms places a bowling ball on a bowling ramp in front of him.
Dow, a resident of the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Vineland, lines up the ramp in the lane and both he and Simms watch as the ball knocks down all but one pin.
For Simms, working in life enrichment at the Veterans Memorial Home in Vineland was as far as he could get from his regular duties as an intelligence analyst with the 204th Intelligence Squadron, 108th Wing, New Jersey Air National Guard.
“I love this mission,” said Simms. “I’m happy to get up every single day to serve these people, our veterans. They say to me, ‘Thank you for your service,’ and I say, ‘No, thank you, you paved the way for people like me to be here and do what I’m doing.’”
The mission is part of the New Jersey National Guard’s Joint Task Force COVID Guardian, supporting New Jersey’s three veterans homes and two transitional housing programs at Veterans Havens North and South.
Amid the surge of omicron variant cases of COVID-19, the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs assigned more than 150 additional New Jersey National Guard Soldiers and Airmen to the homes. Currently, 50 Soldiers and 22 Airmen are serving at Vineland.
“They came in at a very critical time and they were a real benefit,” said Matthew Daher, assistant chief executive officer, New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Vineland. “They are well trained, well mannered, and very respectful of our veterans.”
Unlike previous missions, this one has required more training for the Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen. Thirty-five of them trained as certified nursing assistants.
“They were willing to take on an assignment that, for some of them, was as far from their normal lives as it could possibly get,” said Allyson Bailey, chief executive officer, New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Vineland. “Especially those who became trained in being a CNA.”
One of those CNAs is Senior Airman Andrea A. Williamson, a public affairs specialist with the 108th Wing.
“At first, I was nervous to start taking care of the residents,” said Williamson. “But once you really get into it, then you can laugh and connect with them.”
Williamson works in Honor Circle, where most residents require total care. She bathes, dresses and feeds the residents and helps them get up and into their wheelchairs.
“Everything from turning the TV so they can see it, or brushing their hair,” said Williamson. “Any little thing you do is appreciated.”
It also means spending time with them.
“You learn compassion and patience,” said Williamson.
“I am amazed to see the CNA Soldiers and Airmen filling in a role that is not easy to fill,” said Army 1st Lt. Jeffrey M. Silver, Vineland officer in charge. “Being upbeat, engaging with the residents in a positive manner. Their resiliency has been phenomenal.”
“The residents love them,” said Lisa Williams, director, life enrichment, New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Vineland. “They’ve been interacting with residents, assisting them to and from their activities. They’ve helped us in decorating for special events; they’ve integrated and become part of our family.”
In addition to being CNAs, the Soldiers and Airmen have been working in food services, infection control, information technology, life enrichment, logistics, and testing.
Before serving at Vineland, Army Spc. and Army ROTC cadet Reefaht T. Alam, 250th Financial Detachment, 42nd Regional Support Group, was unaware there were long-term care facilities in New Jersey specifically for veterans.
“Being able to serve in this facility and to see how professional the staff is, makes you feel good knowing that our veterans are being taken care of,” said Alam. “It’s been a real eye-opening experience for me.”
Alam is among nine Guardsmen assigned to food services.
“Some were actual cooks with experience in the culinary arts, so they jumped right in and helped with the cooking,” said Daher.
The Vineland home opened in 1899 and has served veterans of every war since the Civil War. In 2005, it was rebuilt as a state-of-the-art nursing home. Today, 249 residents live at the home.