An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

349th AMW Airmen reflect on coronavirus deployment

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Rachel Martinez
  • 349th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — In mid-April, as the novel coronavirus pandemic spread across the nation, the 349th Air Mobility Wing deployed 23 Reserve Citizen Airmen to assist with the surge of COVID-19 patients in the New York City area.

After approximately six weeks serving on the frontlines of the coronavirus health crisis at the Javits Medical Center and other area hospitals, the final group of Reserve doctors, nurses, and medical technicians returned home June 5, 2020.

Air Force Reserve Command mobilized more than 1,000 Reserve Citizen Airmen in support of COVID-19 relief efforts, including approximately 120 medical personnel to New York City. When the 349th Medical Group was called upon to join those efforts, they had no trouble filling the positions.

“We had more than a hundred Airmen volunteer to go,” said Chief Master Sgt. Michele Ortiz, 349th MDG superintendent. “Within one night we validated who was eligible to go, and they were on their way days later.”

For many of the deployers, the reason for volunteering was simple – they wanted to help and serve others. Dr. (Maj.) George Gallardo, an internal medicine physician, had already volunteered to work with COVID-19 patients at the civilian hospital he works at in Sacramento, but said this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“There was so much uncertainty on whether there would be a similar surge of patients here in California,” said Gallardo, who is assigned to the 349th Medical Squadron. “I had to balance that with volunteering to go to New York City where there was an immediate need. I felt like I would make the most impact in New York. It was an opportunity to use my skills as an internal medicine physician and make a direct impact on the whole.”

Other Airmen echoed those sentiments, adding that their military service led them to be ready.

“I volunteered because of the dire need,” said Tech. Sgt. Gary Sumter, 349th Aeromedical Staging Squadron emergency medical technician. “You watch the news and you see what’s going on. We’re not trained to be bystanders; we’re trained to take action.”

With short notice to get out the door, the Airmen had little time to prepare. Most of what they knew about the situation on the ground in New York came from watching news reports. Many started brushing up on their medical skills and learning what they could about the coronavirus.

“My whole family is in the medical field and they’ve all be dealing with COVID-19 since the beginning,” said Senior Airman Jeremiah Thiel, 349th Medical Squadron medical technician. “My mom works in the intensive care unit, and I have aunts who work in emergency rooms. They showed me things they thought would be helpful.”

Most of the Airmen from the 349th AMW were initially assigned to the Javits Medical Center where they worked alongside Navy and Army personnel in the make-shift hospital for COVID-19 patients.

Sumter, who works as a defense contractor and United States Postal Service letter carrier in his civilian capacity, spent a lot of time doing online research, especially in the area of in-patient and respiratory care. Despite any preparations, working in the ICU at the Javits Medical Center and seeing first-hand the spread and effects of COVID-19 was jarring.

“It’s shocking to see what was going on with our own citizens,” said Sumter. “I never saw so many people die in such a short time. I saw first-hand what COVID-19 does to a person’s body. I’ve never seen anything like that. One day a patient is fine, and then next he’s not. It’s sad to see.”

Also shocking to the Airmen was the personal protective equipment. While they had plenty of it, and never felt like it was lacking, wearing it constantly was an adjustment.

“We were in it for the entire shift – 10 to 12 hours,” said Tech. Sgt. Jose Cabrera, 349th MDS medical technician. “That’s a long time to be covered in so much PPE.”

Sumter agreed, adding that the PPE adds a layer of difficulty to the job. “The masks tear up your face -- it’s hard to breath, hard to see,” he said.

The Javits Medical Center appeared to hit their peak patient-load about a week prior to the Airmen arriving. As the patient load fell, the Airmen were reassigned to local area hospitals including Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx, and Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.

“Going in to the hospital was challenging,” said Gallardo, who was assigned to work internal medicine at Elmhurst. “The staff there had gone through a lot over the previous month. They were all trying to cope. It was just humbling to show up and work alongside those physicians. It felt good to show up and provide some relief for them.”

Several Airmen worked on the prone team at Elmhurst Hospital. As more was learned about COVID-19, research showed that turning patients over could have positive effects.

“Working with the team at Elmhurst – the civilian, Air Force and Army doctors – we all came together to get this prone program going,” said Thiel. “My job was to switch patients from their backs to stomachs and back. It sounds simple but there’s a lot of checklists to follow and equipment to check. We were always improving and making changes to our checklists.”

The newness of COVID-19, its evolving nature, and wide range of symptoms, presented challenges for all the medical professionals.

“COVID-19 is still so new, and we don’t know a lot about this disease,” said Gallardo. “Things are changing on a day to day basis, and we’re having to stay fluid. There’s so much that still needs to be learned – how it spreads and its effect on our bodies – it’s still a mystery we’re trying to solve. The thing I’ve learned the most is that it’s not ‘one size fits all.’ Some things we know in medicine, just don’t apply. We’ve had to be flexible with our practice.

“Fortunately, we had some great infectious disease experts that we could look to for advice, and they helped to keep us up to date on the research,” added Gallardo. “The amount of research coming out of New York has been phenomenal, and some of our Air Force colleagues were able to help with that.”

The patient load, seeing so much death, and being exposed to a virus that so little is known about, also presented physical and mental difficulties for the deployed Airmen.

“The hospitals there were chaotic,” said Sumter. “Everyone there was just trying to get by; they were overwhelmed. You couldn’t help but feel bad. We were used to dealing with two to three patients at time in the Air Force; there we were dealing with six to seven patients.”

Sumter added that on the military side, the team was very regimented in how they approached their work.

“We were trained, we kept order, and stepped up. Our resiliency level was high. We’re used to this, we train for this, and we have trust in each other,” Sumter said. “Still, it was the first time I’ve seen cracks in my own armor. I pride myself on being a tough person and steadfast. But the death rate was daunting. We’re not used to seeing so many deaths.”

Elmhurst Hospital was one of the most overwhelmed hospitals in the nation with COVID-19 patients, said Thiel, a full-time student with two years of military service. Being around a virus that caused so much death was nerve wracking. Others agreed.

“It’s hard because you can’t see the virus; 35 percent of patients didn’t realize they had it,” said Sumter. “When you deploy to a base overseas, you can typically see the enemy. The situation is black and white. But here, everything is gray.”

To deal with the psychological effects of working in such an environment, the Airmen turned to each other. When they had downtime, they would share information and training. They also held physical fitness training sessions together. Most importantly, they had a safe place to talk with others who were going through the same experiences.

“So many different factors added to the stress – the job itself, seeing patients not doing well despite your best effort, trying to avoid getting sick yourself,” said Gallardo, who served as the officer in charge of the Travis Reserve team. “Our team has gotten close over the last six weeks. We’ve been creating safe spaces to decompress and vent, talk about what we were experiencing. There was a culture of being open and recognizing problems; it was good to see, and important to have a space to share those feelings.”

“Thank God we had each other,” added Sumter. “I can’t imagine being alone, without my squadron mates. Those people were a big positive. You develop strong bonds in these environments – we became a tribe. While we’re glad to be back home, we will miss that tribal bond with our teammates.”

Sumter added that he had mixed feelings about returning home.

“Once you are here, you want to feel like you made a difference and that the mission is complete,” he said. “We don’t have that sense of completion – there’s still no cure. COVID-19 is still here, and it hasn’t burned itself out.”

With the virus still spreading, everyone needs to stay vigilant with social distancing and safety guidelines, Sumter emphasized. It’s easy to be lackadaisical and not take it seriously if you aren’t seeing it. The biggest precautions people can take is to continue to wear a mask, clean surfaces, and wash hands frequently.

Before returning home, each Airman was tested for COVID-19. Once home, they undergo a quarantine period as a precautionary measure. Despite the intense experience, they are glad they volunteered for such an opportunity to serve.

“As many patients as we had and that I was hands-on with, I feel like I made a real difference,” said Cabrera, who will return to work as a licensed vocational nurse in Daly City. “It was a good experience. Once I’m back to my civilian job, I see myself moving to an area where I will have more patient care related to COVID-19.”

Like several of the other deployers, Gallardo is returning home to family he had to leave behind for the deployment.

“One reason I’m in the Reserves is to set an example for my son – to do a form of service to something greater than yourself,” Gallardo said. “It was hard to leave him, but I think it set a good example for him to look back on in the future.”

“A theme I heard among several deployers was this: this is the reason we’re in the military – to help out in times like this,” Gallardo added. “We talk about deployments and going overseas, but never imagined this situation, and being deployed on the frontline in the U.S. This is a very direct way for us to serve our country. It reaffirmed why we do what we do.”