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914th ASTS nurses deploy to help fight COVID-19

  • Published
  • By Peter Borys
  • 914th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

NIAGARA FALLS AIR RESERVE STATION, N.Y.  A C-130 from Youngstown ARS, Ohio flew into Niagara on April 22, 2020 to load up equipment and Airmen set to deploy in support of ongoing medical operations in New York City and surrounding areas during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In total, 16 Reserve Citizen Airmen with gear and supplies boarded the flight; 11 nurses from the 914th Aeromedical Staging Squadron (ASTS), and five from the 934th ASTS at Minneapolis-St. Paul ARS, Minnesota. They were enroute to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (JBMDL), New Jersey, where they will forward deploy to areas needing their help.

The Niagara team is led by chief nurse Lt. Col. Stacy Shourt. Followed by Maj. Mark Burkard, Maj. Janine Merville, Maj. Christopher Schoch, Capt. Deana Stefko, Capt. Megan Heimerl, Capt. Tara Gensler, Capt. John Copas, 1st Lt. Joseph Gross, 1st Lt. Jordan Valori, and 1st Lt. Kallie McCallum. All from Western N.Y. except for Erie, Pa. and Ottawa, Canada.

For some, this notification of need arrived just 72 hours before departure. McCallum drove over five hours from her home across the Canadian-U.S. border to report for duty at NFARS. She, along with her husband, is stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, where she works as an embassy staff nurse.

McCallum's family are no strangers to deployments.

"My husband is very supportive of me,” said McCallum. “He said I guess it's your turn now." They have five children, some of whom are already in the military.

Capt. Copas, a former Marine who is also no stranger to deploying, celebrated both his and his mother's birthday just days before deploying.

"A lot of people like to go to New York City for their birthday. I'm getting my chance for free," Copas joked.

When asked how his family felt about the deployment, Copas said they're handling it pretty well.

"We did prepare. We had a little bit of notice that we might expect a call. My kids are a little scared, but they're also proud and excited that I get to be part of the people who are helping," Copas added. "I think everybody needs to ask themselves--what can I do? Maybe it's putting on a mask and gloves at home, but this is what we can do. I'm pretty happy to be doing it."

In his civilian employment, Copas works as a nursing informatics specialist for the Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital. He is also a full-time teacher of undergraduate nursing at D'Youville College in Buffalo.

Copas completed his second master's degree last week for psychological nurse practitioner, where he hopes to be able to put that degree to good use once deployed.

"I think there's a need. I think I can do some good," Copas said.

The team will not know where they are assigned until they arrive. However, these Airmen expect to work 12-hour shifts during their six-month deployment.

Capt. Gensler is leaving her three children with her husband, who is also in the military. This trip makes it her second deployment, but the first with her children.

"Oh yeah, it's a lot different now having kids. It's a little tough on them," she said. Her first deployment was 13 years ago in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

While waiting for their flight to arrive, Capt. Christina Pesonen, a flight nurse from the 934th ASTS, met an old friend. Pesonen was the maid of honor for 914th Capt. Heimerl's wedding over a year ago. They are long-time friends who met 10 years ago while on active duty at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. Both say they're excited about the prospect of working together this deployment.

Lt. Col. Shourt, has been with the 914th ASTS over two years and this marks Shourt's first deployment.

"Our main objective is to fill in where needed. Once we get down to McGuire, they will assess what our skills are individually," Shourt said. "We have some pretty talented nurses with a vast amount of experience and skills. They may split us up and use us in our specialty areas, or we could all be sent to other areas. We have no idea at this point until we get there. That's part of being in the military, remaining flexible, and going where they need you. I'm excited to be going with them, and God willing, this will all be over soon."

The 914th ASTS commander, Lt. Col. Shelley Durante, echoed some of what Shourt said.

"This is a medical war. Our brave nurses are deploying to the front lines and leaving their families, friends and jobs to fight in the battle. I have the utmost respect for all of them and thank them for their service. I can't say it enough – they are true heroes."