MILWAUKEE — Citizen Soldiers and Airmen from the Wisconsin National Guard began assisting at two mass community vaccination sites in Milwaukee this week.
Approximately 40 Wisconsin National Guard troops are on duty at Milwaukee North Division and Milwaukee South Division High Schools helping administer vaccines, and approximately a dozen more are assisting at a vaccination site in Eau Claire, Wisconsin as part of a new Wisconsin National Guard initiative to provide community vaccination teams to mass vaccination sites in key parts of the state.
The community vaccination teams have helped administer more than 7,500 vaccines at those three sites since beginning operations earlier this week.
Those teams are in addition to the mobile vaccination teams that the Guard began supporting in January, which consist of smaller teams of four National Guard troops combined with local vaccinators that augment local public health staffs operating vaccine clinics. As of April 8, mobile vaccination teams had helped administer more than 76,000 COVID-19 vaccines statewide.
The community vaccination teams have helped widen the availability of vaccinations in underserved communities and freed up local resources that are now available to focus on serving other neighborhoods and areas of need.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency opened another mass vaccination site at the Wisconsin Center in downtown Milwaukee where active duty Army troops are helping staff the facility. The Wisconsin National Guard has played a small role there, but Guard troops are primarily focused on integrating with and supporting the Milwaukee Health Department at North and South Division High Schools in Milwaukee.
Providing such a critical need to Milwaukee and other Wisconsin communities is near and dear to many Citizen Soldiers and Airmen in the Wisconsin National Guard – all of whom live and work in the same communities across the state.
“I think it’s important, because we’re going to go on offense,” said Col. Randall Myszka, who is helping lead the Guard’s community vaccination effort. “It’s going to be one of the first times where the Guard is actually going to be delivering those vaccinations, and the public can see that there’s support there, not only just on the civilian side, but also the Guard is involved with that.
“And they saw the face of the Guard doing all of the collections before, and this is going to be the first time they’ll see the face of the Guard giving those immunizations to take it full circle,” he added. “We’re no longer just detecting trying to see where it’s all at, but we’re actually delivering those vaccinations so we can push back a bit.”
Myszka originally mobilized for the COVID response nearly a year ago in May 2020. Since then, he’s seen the mission evolve from testing to vaccinating, and he’s seen the Soldiers and Airmen supporting the response coalesce as a task force while growing as individual service members and leaders. He’s been impressed at the resilience and dedication shown by the troops throughout the mission.
“Having that resilience to be able to do the mission,” he said of what impressed him most. “Whatever it is, we’re going to do the mission and being very dedicated says volumes about the character of the Soldiers that we have and the junior leaders we have coming through the ranks now.”
At the new community vaccination sites, Guard medics are physically administering the vaccines, while other non-medic personnel are performing support roles such as serving as greeters, data entry, observing for any adverse reactions, and any other required duties on site, he said.
Spc. Luis Hernandez, a wheeled vehicle mechanic in the Mosinee, Wisconsin-based Company F, 132nd Brigade Support Battalion, is one of those Soldiers serving in a support role. He’s been mobilized since August performing COVID tests all over Wisconsin from Rice Lake to Platteville to Madison. He simply wants to make a difference.
“I just want my family to look at me and make sure they’re proud of what I’m doing, and they’re like, ‘yeah, that’s my son doing that,’” he said.
“For me it’s just showing them how mobile we are, how adaptable we are to basically work in whatever conditions, however we can, to our best abilities,” Hernandez added.
The community support, he said, has been incredible.
“I was down in Janesville last week, and they were so thankful for what we’re doing for the community, and that just made me be proud of why I’m serving,” he said. “It kind of gave me the motivation to keep going. That’s what makes me really proud of this mission – when people look at you and say, ‘you guys are in the National Guard?’ and then they’ll be like ‘thank you for everything that you’re doing.’”
Hernandez and approximately 60 other Guard members spent the last week of March at the Sussex National Guard armory preparing for the new community vaccination team mission learning how to properly handle the different types of vaccines.
Sgt. Terrence Bass, a cavalry scout assigned to Troop A, 1st Squadron, 105th Cavalry in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin has also appreciated the support from the community. He’s been mobilized since March 2020 performing a variety of missions ranging from election support to COVID testing. He had returned from a year-long mobilization to Afghanistan with the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry just three months before mobilizing again for the COVID response.
“I’m actually pretty happy that I’m able to help out the community,” Bass said. “Everywhere we go, all of the populace is super thankful, and very appreciative. You can see first-hand that you’re helping these people and their families out, so that just makes you feel good on the inside.”
Bass said it’s rewarding to know that when Wisconsin National Guard troops arrive in a community that they are helping the community gain peace of mind.
“And then being able to see these areas that have gotten a lot of positive tests and seeing their response to that, because they’ll have an outbreak one week, and then that next week we’re in that same area testing people to get them back to their jobs or schools,” he said. “So being able to provide that is pretty awesome, because you never get to do that kind of stuff for your community. It’s a good experience.”
Meanwhile, Spc. Stephanie Fjeld, assigned to the 106th Quarry Detachment in Tomah, Wisconsin, also said she’s been amazed by the community’s support for Wisconsin Guard troops. She’s been mobilized since May 2020 as well and spent much of the initial response conducting COVID testing at state prisons and correctional facilities. She spent a large amount of time in Racine, Wisconsin, where community members delivered kringle to the unit to her team on a daily basis.
Now, she’s among the support staff at a vaccination site.
“I’m really excited for what we’re about to do and how many people we’re about to help especially with this federal money focused on helping the underprivileged community,” she said. “I’m very excited to have the opportunity to go out and help that community.”
Fjeld is originally from Minnesota and ended up joining the Wisconsin National Guard as a University of Wisconsin-Stout student. She is currently employed as a civilian as a trim-finish carpenter in Minnesota and has been grateful for the support and flexibility of her employer while she serves.
“It means a lot to me to be able to help everyone,” she said.
Likewise for Spc. Chelsea Streats, a medic assigned to the Headquarters Battery of the 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Streats grew up in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, but has spent the last few years living in Milwaukee where she’ll now be assisting.
Streats left for basic training last March, just as the pandemic took hold and mobilized for the first time in March 2021 to help administer vaccines.
“This will be my first exposure on the military side to help out with COVID, but I think it’s really important to try and help make sure that trend goes downward as everyone says,” she said. “But I’m really excited to be a part of that and use my medic skills on a true mission.”
Many of the troops are current college students pursuing both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Myszka has emphasized self-development to his troops while mobilized and encouraged them to take advantage of any downtime to read, study, and develop their leadership skills.
Several of the troops have taken upwards of 18 college credits while simultaneously doing COVID testing.
Spc. Sean Gilligan is a combat medic assigned to the 724th Engineer Battalion in Chippewa Falls. He’s simultaneously studying global management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and learning Russian through an Army language program in preparation for a position he’s taking next fall at the U.S. embassy in Latvia as part of his college program. He’s even assisted on a couple of occasions as a French translator at testing sites when the need arose.
He also has a background in healthcare – working part-time as an EMT in Milwaukee, and he’s been grateful for the opportunity to serve and have an impact on his own community.
“I think it definitely demonstrates that we’re probably the most versatile branch,” Gilligan said. “If you want to truly get out and experience what it is your state, your nation, what the world has to offer, I think the National Guard is the way to go because of that.
“If you look at the mission sets of what’s happened this year in 2020, and you look at the fact that we’ve been able to do enduring missions, have quick reaction forces, and being able to work for the local populaces not including just what we’ve done for COVID – we’ve gone out to DC and Kenosha, and things like that – and we’ve been able to run all of that simultaneously, but moreover, COVID for such an enduring amount of time, which is not up the Guard’s alley,” he said. “But people have been willing to put down what they’ve been doing on a day-to-day basis and go out and do that. I think that’s really remarkable.”
Tech. Sgt. Elizabeth Strassman, who serves in the Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing Medical Group in Madison, Wisconsin, is also in the midst of pursuing a degree – a master’s in public health epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has an undergraduate degree in microbiology. Pandemic response and public health are near and dear to her heart, and she’s now using both her military and civilian experience to benefit both the military and the public.
“I worked at (Wisconsin Department of Health Services) briefly during the summer for an internship, so I kind of understood the public health nature of it, and it provided me with a good opportunity to be a good liaison between public health, military, speaking the lingo and helping them understand that we’re all in this together and I very much respect their field, because I’m in it,” she said.
Strassman was one of the first to mobilize back in March 2020 and did testing missions all over Wisconsin before transitioning to a community vaccination team.
“I think it says so much about our organization that we’re able to not only work together amongst different branches, we’re able to really respond in a timely manner with planning and organization, and it’s seen as very respectable by our civilian counterparts,” Strassman said. “They’re seeing what we can put together and our forecast for things that haven’t been even thought about in the civilian sector. So I think our planning and the amount of people that come together to complete a mission has been really inspiring for civilian counterparts, and it gives them the understanding that we’re here to help regardless of what that mission is.”
The Guard’s versatility, she said, has been a critical component of the overall response.
“It’s just, ‘what is the need of the community,’ and we’re able to help them no matter what it is,” she said. “And we’re quick. We’re efficient. We’ll get the job done.”
Strassman hopes that widespread vaccine availability is what helps to finally turn the tide against the pandemic.
“This is an opportunity for the National Guard medics to utilize their skills that they’ve been trained for,” she said. “Most of us give vaccinations on drill weekends. We are very well-versed on giving vaccinations, but to be able to provide those vaccinations and be on the offense of COVID instead of swabbing after you’ve already got COVID or you’re not sure…I really like being on the forefront of hopefully bringing an end to this pandemic and maybe try to find some normalcy.”
Serving in this role allows her to put the skills the military has taught her and the use the education for which the military has helped pay, to now serve her community.
“It does really come full circle that the military has helped me pay for my education and get my education in providing healthcare for people that are most vulnerable areas and vulnerable populations without access to healthcare, and I think this is very full circle for me especially because I get to use that knowledge and help my neighbors,” she said. “I live in Milwaukee, so helping my neighbors and getting to treat the people of people of Wisconsin is an incredible experience, and I’m excited for it.”
The past year has been unlike any other in the Wisconsin National Guard’s history, and its agility and versatility has been on display as it’s taken on many vastly different missions ranging from overseas combat operations to multiple roles in the COVID response, and civil unrest missions. Thanks to the adaptability of its individual Citizen Soldiers and Airmen, it’s endured and served the state and nation in every way imaginable.
“It basically goes to show that with the National Guard being as versatile as we are and people having their own job in the military and people having their own job on the civilian side, it just goes to how versatile we are,” Bass said. “You can literally throw us into any situation and we will adapt to help out where we can.”