Ever since President Donald Trump signed an executive order authorizing mobilization of the Reserve Component on March 27, Reserve Citizen Airmen medics have served on the front lines of the nation’s battle against the COVID-19 coronavirus.
“The Air Force Reserve stands ready to surge in support of the COVID-19 response,” Lt. Gen. Richard Scobee, chief of the Air Force Reserve and commander of Air Force Reserve Command, said on the day the executive order was signed. “This is an unprecedented mission and COVID-19 is a destructive adversary. We must do all we can to take care of Americans.”
Reservists Mobilized in 48 Hours
Just days after the mobilization was authorized, Air Force Reserve Command’s Force Generation Center received its first request for support.
Within 48 hours of notification, the Reserve mobilized more than 120 medical specialists across the nation to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, to help with the fight against COVID-19 in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic.
More than 40 doctors, 70 nurses and about a dozen respiratory technicians departed their home stations on April 5, went through further inprocessing at JBMDL and eventually went to work at medical facilities in and around New York City.
Their deployment was part of a larger initial mobilization package of more than 1,000 Reserve Component medical professionals from across the nation.
The FGC ensured the Air Force Reserve volunteers were delivered to the fight in a timely manner.
“The stand-up of the FGC and the capabilities it brought the command has made this COVID-19 mobilization a success,” Scobee said. “The FGC team and our wing commanders got this mobilization moving in the right direction within 48 hours to take care of Americans in the fight against COVID-19.”
It isn’t easy to mobilize civilians into military status normally, much less within two days. However, the leadership across the Air Force Reserve leaned forward to pre-identify volunteers from the Selected Reserve – Reserve Citizen Airmen currently actively serving in the Reserve.
“Using SELRES member volunteers enabled the FGC to do a quick-turn to meet this first tasking coming to the Reserve component from the Department of Defense,” said Brig. Gen. Stacey Scarisbrick, FGC commander. “It’s important to get our Reservists out the door quickly to help combat the spread of COVID-19 and take care of Americans.”
The initial group of mobilized Reserve medics comprised both unit Reservists and individual mobilization augmentees.
“From our IMAs to our Reserve medics, I couldn’t be prouder of this incredible Reserve team who stepped up quickly to answer our nation’s call,” Scobee said.
Through the volunteer process, members were screened for impact to their civilian communities and professions.
“We did not want to pull a doc or nurse out of their community clinical practice or hospital if already ensconced in coronavirus operations,” said Col. (Dr.) Teresa Bisnett, AFRC’s surgeon general. As the top doctor at the command, Bisnett, her team of medical specialists, and the unit and wing commanders, took care to ensure the balance between civilian responsibilities and military requirements were considered in Citizen Airmen deployment selection.
“It was truly a team effort with our units to ensure the right Reservists were selected to provide this surge capability to our nation,” Bisnett said.
Among the initial group of Reservists mobilized the first weekend in April were a doctor and six nurses from the 445th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Group members referred to themselves as the “COVID Commandos.”
One of the COVID Commandos had only six hours’ notice to mobilize when one of the original team members had to drop out.
First Lt. Jennifer Gerritsen was covering a 12-hour overnight shift in the intensive care unit at Wright-Patterson Medical Center near Dayton, Ohio, when she first learned she might be deployed.
“They called me during the shift and asked if I was willing to go, and I said yes,” she said. “I thought I would leave on Monday.”
She finished her shift at 6 a.m. on Sunday and went home to her family. Three hours later, she got another call.
“When I hung up the phone, I just looked over at my husband and told him, ‘They want me to leave today,’” she said. “He immediately said, ‘Let’s get you packed.’”
She was on the plane that afternoon – on her way to New York – and the next day, she was going to work in a New York City hospital.
Also on the initial Reserve mobilization was Maj. Jimmy Jones, chief nurse in the 419th Medical Squadron, Hill AFB, Utah.
When not working for the Reserve, Jones works full time as a nurse practitioner in Pocatello, Idaho, in a surgical center for patients who need extra levels of care. He said his experience in the civilian and military worlds prepared him for the mobilization.
“We train on a variety of medical skillsets in multiple areas, so we have the knowledge we need anytime the nation calls on us,” Jones said. “I’ve been called up once before for Hurricane Katrina. It’s nice to have been in (service) long enough to be used again in this capacity.”
Also called upon for her medical expertise was Maj. Katherine Trout, who works full time as a registered nurse in an intensive care unit in Salt Lake City, and part time in the 419th MDS.
“I’ve been in the medical field for a long time, and deployed several times in the military. I’m definitely prepared,” she said.
First Lt. Joseph O’Brien was another Reservist who volunteered for the first mobilization. “I was sleeping when I received the phone call to report to MacDill in four hours,” O’Brian, a clinical nurse from the 927th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, MacDill AFB, Florida, said. “I live a couple hours away, so I only had a couple hours to finish packing and say goodbye to my wife and child.”
As an emergency room nurse, O’Brian said he was ready to get to work in the coronavirus hot spot.
“This is what we train for,” he said. “I am ready to help fight this fight and get our country back to some scene of normalcy.”
Tech. Sgt. David Rudd, a respiratory technician assigned to the 433rd Medical Squadron, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, who deployed, said in his 12 years in the military he’s never seen such a short turnaround for a mobilization and deployment.
“The fact that we were able to get the phone call Friday night at 8 p.m. and then boots leaving at 10 a.m. Sunday; I’ve never seen that,” Rudd said. “It’s amazing how all of us were able to get ready so quickly, and it shows what our country is capable of. I took an oath when I became a respiratory practitioner to help people. We’re all medical and we’re willing to help.”
Maj. Reginald Whittington, 433rd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron clinical nurse and mobilized Reservist, said that despite the unknown, he felt ready to face the challenges ahead.
“We are trained to expect the unexpected,” Whittington said. “I’m looking forward to treating patients and helping people, and I’m ready to meet the challenge.”
Whittington said he’s been with the 433rd AW for 13 years, and the unit has always been at the tip of the spear; but it doesn’t happen without the support of families.
“I’m extremely blessed to have a great family who appreciates what I’m doing,” he said. “I’d like to say our families are the heroes in this because they take care of our children and homes while we’re gone. So in every case, our families are the ones who are to be celebrated.”
More than 150 additional Air Force Reserve medical specialists were mobilized about two weeks after the initial call-up and deployed to support COVID-19 relief efforts in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Staff Sgt. Trevor Talbert, 307th MDS aerospace medical technician, Barksdale AFB, Lousiana,was one of the deploying Airmen. A veteran of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he said the deployment to fight COVID-19 was different from the previous ones.
“You can prepare for combat and normally see an enemy coming; now we are combatting a virus that we can’t see,” he said. “I’m still excited, because we’ve got a great group of people going and we are going to do good work."
“I’ve never been more proud of our Reserve Citizen Airmen and how they’ve stepped up to support Americans," Scobee said. “The Air Force Reserve is designed to provide critical rapid response and this capability is on full display as we provide support where it’s needed most.”
Aeromed Joins the Fight
About a week and a half after the first Air Force Reservists were mobilized and sent to New York City, about 100 Reserve aeromedical evacuation specialists were called to join the fight against COVID-19.
They were sent to the COVID-19 aeromedical evacuation hub that was established at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, and deployed around the globe as needed.
The primary mission for these Reservists is to provide lifesaving in-flight patient care in response to contingencies and humanitarian emergencies. These are specialized medical teams, consisting of flight nurses, aeromedical evacuation technicians and support personnel. These teams can operate on a number of U.S. Air Force aircraft.
“As Citizen Airmen, our people are playing a role in helping Americans recover from this pandemic,” said Col. Adam Willis, commander of the 315th Airlift Wing, Joint Base Charleston. “I couldn’t be more proud of the work they are doing,” he said.
About 10 of the initial aeromedical deployers came from the 403rd Wing’s 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.
“The 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron is a unit full of professionals who are absolute experts at their jobs,” said Col. Stuart Rubio, 403rd Wing Operations Group commander. “This short-notice mobilization of our Airmen will utilize those skills and strengthen our fight against this formidable foe.”
“I am extremely proud of our Airmen who volunteered to answer our nation’s call for medical support,” said Lt. Col. Rosalind Johnson, 36th AES director of operations. “When Air Force Reserve Command put the call out for volunteers many of our unit members quickly raised their hand to help wherever they’re needed.”
“We go wherever the patients are,” said Senior Airman Emilie Canlas, 36th AES aeromedical evacuation technician. “We provide all the same services as an emergency medical technician does, but in the back of an aircraft. I am happy to help people in any way that I can, so being able to deploy and provide care is very exciting.”
Canlas said that being a single mother of two, a college student, and working full-time can be difficult; but during this time she has received all the support necessary to deploy.
“My family, college professors and employer have really stepped up and been really supportive of me, allowing me to perform my mission,” she said.
About 20 of the initial aeromedical specialists mobilized came from the 433rd AES, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.
“We’re not only sending crews of flyers, but we’re also sending a ground crew, which includes communications personnel, our medical service corps officer and our admins, who are critical to supporting the mission,” said Lt. Col. Alex Schwan, 433rd AES chief nurse.
“They will be playing a role in the aeromedical evacuation operations team, which is the ground component that supports the aircrew movement.”
In his civilian capacity, Schwan is a primary care clinical case manager for the Veteran’s Administration at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veteran’s Hospital in San Antonio.
This crew spans a variety of backgrounds. Maj. Tracy B. Tucker, 433rd AES flight nurse, who had a break in service between her time as an active duty enlisted Airman and returning with a commission, hasn’t deployed since Desert Storm.
“This is a whole new Air Force for me,” said Tucker. “I was an electronic technician. I worked with radio equipment, video equipment and TVs. Back in those days there were VCRs and stuff like that. It has been a long time since I deployed. I’m looking forward to it.”
When not on duty with the Reserve, Tucker is a nurse at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
"I feel blessed to be able to go in and support this operation," said Chief Master Sgt. Jennifer Moses, aeromedical evacuation technician, 514th AES, JBMDL. "It's an opportunity for us to take care of America and our partners." #ReserveReady #ReserveResilient ■
(Editor's note: 1st Lt. Rachel Ingram, Tech. Sgt. Peter Dean, Tech. Sgt. Samantha Mathison, Tech. Sgt. Christopher Carranza, Master Sgt. Kristian Carter and Staff Sgt. Michael Hong contributed to this story.)