Oklahoma Army and Air National Guardsmen join veterans in fight against COVID-19

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kasey Phipps
  • 137th Special Operations Wing

This week, the Oklahoma National Guard provided 23 Guardsmen to disinfect the Norman Veterans Center, April 29, 2020, in support of the Oklahoma State Department of Health and as part of Oklahoma’s whole-of-government response to COVID-19.

This mission was one of many assigned to the Oklahoma National Guard by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt in order to help protect the State’s most vulnerable populations against the pandemic. But for the Guardsmen, this particular operation hit closer to home.

"It's a pretty incredible feeling being able to come out here, especially being able to give back in a facility like this,” said Oklahoma Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Ron Poland, liaison noncommissioned officer for the 63rd Civil Support Team (63rd CST) and its response to COVID-19. “The Veterans Center does incredible work and the residents of this facility have given so much more than most of us [will ever realize].

Disinfection of this facility was especially important due to the acuity of care it offers some of its residents.

“We take care of veterans from pretty much every period of service here - from Desert Storm, all the way back to World War II,” said Rob Arrington the Veterans Center administrator. “We've got a couple of veterans that are over 100 years old, so they're the most vulnerable people in our population. Having a team like [the Oklahoma National Guard] come in and help us clean and sanitize this place will go a long way in helping protect these vulnerable veterans.”

The Guardsmen split up into three teams, covering all of the common areas of the 275,000 square-foot facility. Using pressure sprayers and hand sprayers filled with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-approved disinfectants, the teams worked from the back of the facility to the front. They paid close attention to commonly touched surfaces and high traffic areas, including handrails, chair arms, tables, switches and elevator buttons.

“Cleanliness and sanitation is so important in fighting this outbreak,” said Arrington. “We've got a fantastic housekeeping crew here, but we can always use the help. So it was great seeing the [Guardsmen] run around all over the facility, sanitizing tables, chairs, doorknobs, handrails, floors… everything. It will really help us keep this place as safe as we possibly can.”

The Guardsmen worked in joint teams to accomplish their mission under the guidance of the 63rd Civil Support Team. For Oklahoma Air National Guard Airman 1st Class Emily Acuna, a member of the 137th Special Operations Civil Engineering Squadron, the mission was her first state activation. She had been activated the day before and was responsible for helping the Airmen and Soldiers “doff” or take off their protective gear in a way that prevents the spread of any potential pathogens.

“I think it's really great to be here today, especially because they're veterans and it's great to give back to those who gave to us first… ” said Acuna. “Getting to see the process of being activated and… then being able to actually come onsite and able to do it is just a really great feeling. And it's really interesting to see the diversity in the Air Force and the Army… and watch us come together and push through this mission.”

The 63rd CST is joint by design, said Poland. It’s composed of both Air and Army National Guardsmen and is a 24/7 response force for the State of Oklahoma. Its traditional mission includes supporting civil authorities during incidents that relate to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive agents or substances; assessing current and projected consequences; advising on response measures; and assisting with appropriate requests for additional state support.

“We've been leveraged through our higher headquarters, the 90th Troop Command, to put together and be a liaison element for these infection control teams going out,” explained Poland. “So the ability for us to work with either Air or Army National Guardsman, is kind of already built into our mission, and I think it's gone really well so far.”

Though the disinfectant teams’ tell-tale military uniforms were covered by their full-body protective gear, residents still recognized the Service members, often asking them their ranks and branches and asking about their careers.

“Our residents, of course, they're all former military and they really enjoy having people in the center that are currently serving,” said Arrington. “They would sit and tell you war stories all day long and talk about their service and compare it to their service. They react very well to having uniforms in the building.”

The Oklahoma National Guardsmen were overwhelmed by the positive responses they received from the residents and shared the same sense of appreciation.

“The enthusiasm to interact is one of the best parts about being in the military,” said Poland. “It’s the camaraderie, the brotherhood, the sisterhood, that is formed during your service that never dies. So the ability for these guys to come in and share their stories with us and then us provide the service in return is an incredible feeling.”