LA CROSSE, Wis. – After more than three months, Wisconsin National Guard members’ mission to help as nursing assistants at state health care facilities is winding down.
Senior Wisconsin National Guard leaders and officials from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services traveled to several health care facilities to express their appreciation for the partnership and the hospitality they provided to Guard members serving at those facilities.
As the state grappled with the Omicron COVID-19 variant surge in late 2021 and a staffing shortage in the health care field, bed space at health care facilities was at a premium.
The state turned to the Wisconsin National Guard to help fill the void and open up additional beds at key facilities. More than 160 Citizen-Soldiers and Citizen-Airmen from the Wisconsin National Guard completed two-week training programs at Madison College or Bellin College in Green Bay and on-the-job training to gain nursing assistant certification before getting assigned to health care and long-term care facilities around the state. More than 130 additional troops assisted at other state-operated facilities.
Despite these troops coming mostly from non-medical backgrounds, they displayed adaptability and professionalism.
That mission will wind down over the coming days as the need for the Guard’s assistance has dissipated.
Charlene Everett, the chief executive officer at Odd Fellow Home in Green Bay, where approximately 10 troops assisted beginning in mid-January, praised the Guard members for their service.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said at an April 26 recognition event at Odd Fellow Home. “They’ve been obedient, attentive and so kind to our residents.”
Everett said one resident who usually shunned assistance developed a fantastic relationship with one of the Guard members. Another Guard member used his own money to buy some items a resident needed.
“I honestly don’t have one negative thing to say,” Everett said. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat. The scary part is their absence, but we knew it was coming, so we prepared for it, and I think we’re going to be good.”
Everett said she hopes some of the Guard members remain in the health care field with their new training and experience, even though no one would have expected National Guard members to fill the role.
“You picture them after a hurricane or after a flood being the first people there to help, and you love them for it,” she said. “I wish the public could understand that this was just as urgent. This was dear lives that they were caring for.”
Spc. James Henkel, an infantryman assigned to C Company, 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry in Fond du Lac, was recognized as the certified nursing assistant of the month at Odd Fellow Home in March. He had some basic medical care experience in the past.
“I’ve worked mostly in rehab centers, so being able to see the patients as they come in Day One and then working with them up until they leave and have built up the strength they needed to get over, I think that was most rewarding,” he said.
“I think it’s amazing,” he said of the versatility and adaptability Soldiers and Airmen displayed. “Being able to take a ton of people from all backgrounds both on the civilian and military side with no prior experience in the medical field and being able to come here and be successful in this is just amazing.”
Henkel recently applied to the Wisconsin State Patrol Academy and also has EMT experience. He hopes to pursue a career in one of those fields.
Pfc. Amanda Hierstetter, a combat engineer with the 273rd Engineer Company, was assigned to the Mayo Clinic Health System Franciscan Healthcare facility in La Crosse. She arrived in January, not sure what to expect.
Her experience working as a nursing assistant was so meaningful that she plans to pursue a career in health care.
“I didn’t realize how much this would impact me – patient care,” she said. “Every day, I loved getting up in the morning. It doesn’t matter what time it was. Super excited to get up and work with these people every day.”
Hierstetter is finishing a bachelor’s degree in management and now plans to pursue a master’s degree in health care.
Brig. Gen. Tim Covington, the Wisconsin National Guard’s deputy adjutant general for civil support, traveled to Green Bay and La Crosse to thank the Soldiers and Airmen serving at Bellin Health Systems, Odd Fellow Home, the Mayo Clinic and Hillview Health Center.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ Dr. Jon Meiman, state epidemiologist and chief medical officer, and Miki Gould, the facility liaison for the Wisconsin Healthcare Capacity Task Force, joined Covington and Col. Randall Myszka, the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s Medical Detachment commander, on the visits.
“We can’t thank the Guard enough for the work that you’ve done, being willing to step up and volunteer into a completely new role,” Meiman said while visiting troops finishing their tours at Odd Fellow Home in Green Bay. “It has helped more patients than I think we’ll ever know across this state.”
Covington also expressed his gratitude for the National Guard members. He said the mission’s success was mainly due to the strong partnerships between the National Guard, the Department of Health Services, and the health care facilities troops supported.
“Success comes in partnerships,” Covington said. “It doesn’t come from being a 185-year-old organization. It comes from partnerships. First and foremost, our partnership is that relationship we have with the Soldiers and Airmen that are members of the organization that trust the leadership to find a way to make things happen. But then it’s the partnership with the civil authority that is actually asking us for support. In this case, the Department of Health Services in this state recognized a very large delta and need as COVID had taken on a very long journey through our nation and taken us down roads we’d never been on before.”
As the Wisconsin National Guard begins to transition out of its mission to support the state’s COVID-19 response, some troops plan to remain in the health care industry. Others will transition back to their full-time civilian careers or academic pursuits.
The Guard has played a major role in the state’s response to the pandemic since the declaration of a public health emergency in March 2020. Members helped administer more than 1.2 million COVID tests and more than 230,000 vaccines. They also placed more than 565,000 calls to notify residents of test results, assisted county medical examiners and staffed self-isolation facilities in the largest sustained domestic mobilization in the Wisconsin National Guard’s history.