By 1st Lt James Mason
111th Theater Engineer Brigade
From testing fellow service members, local citizens, and even prison inmates, West Virginia Guardsmen have been instrumental in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus. Now, they continue to play a role in testing for COVID-19, but this time, nearly 7,000 miles from home.
Soldiers from the 111th Theater Engineer Brigade medical section, currently deployed to Southwest Asia in support of Operation Spartan Shield, have been tapped to assume authority of the entire redeployment COVID-19 testing process for Camp Buehring, Kuwait.
Although this duty was not originally assigned to the 111th, when Task Force Spartan identified a gap in support the 111th leadership knew that they had the right resources and knowledge to accomplish the mission.
“The 111th Engineer Brigade Surgeon Cell has significant experience dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic stateside,” said Sgt. 1st Class Taylor Hender, the 111th TEB medical operations noncommissioned officer in charge. “West Virginia has one of the best records for managing the crisis, and we as the West Virginia National Guard helped immensely with the efforts.”
Building on the experiences from the past year, it seemed as if it were second nature for the team when it came time to execute.
“During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, all members of the Surgeon Cell were involved— at high levels. With that, we bring relevant and ready operational and institutional knowledge” said Hender. “We are able to leverage that knowledge to fill capability gaps in our Title 10 partners for whom this type of mission is not standard.”
The responsibilities of the 111th are simple, yet crucial: ensure every service member redeploying back to the United States is tested for COVID-19 prior to leaving Kuwait.
This is only possible though because of the 3654th Support Maintenance Company and their willingness to provide a significant portion of the Redeployment Testing Team in the form of noncommissioned officers oversight. As electronics maintainers, these junior NCOs are operating outside of their standard skillset and provide an invaluable asset of continuity.
“I really want to give a huge shout out to the Soldiers and leaders from the 3654th,” said Capt. Brittany Watson, the officer in charge of the 111th TEB medical operations and of the Camp Buehring redeployment testing program. “The only reason this results in mission success is because of the help and support provided from those Soldiers.”
To administer a COVID-19 test, on average, takes less than 60 seconds to complete. But in order for a service member to show up and get tested that quickly, there are hours of planning and staffing considerations that happen behind the curtain.
According to Watson, the planning and efforts are all worth it when they see Soldiers complete the test and are able to head back home to their families.
“It's not about the receiving accolades for the 111th, it's all about caring for others,” said Watson. “We are happy to have the privilege to facilitate those greater goods.”
Since assuming this role, Watson and Hender have exponentially increased the amount of Soldiers they can test in an hour-long period, resulting in less time spent at the testing location for the Soldier and more time given back to the unit to prepare for the demobilization process.
Much of this success though is because West Virginia Guardsmen are used to working outside of their tasked roles.
“I'm a medic who has spent considerable time, both deployed and stateside, with engineer units. Something I've noticed is that engineer units are often tasked for roles beyond the norm and they tend to get results,” said Hender. “Engineers, and their medical staffs, have a reputation for making things happen. In this case, it's testing homebound service members. Through this mission, the 111th TEB is living up to the legacy of engineers across the Army: we get results.”
The impact that ensuring all redeploying Soldiers are COVID-19 negative spans beyond certifying that they are healthy at the end of their tour. This guarantees that the health and safety of all personnel and facilities stateside will also remain intact.
“Besides taking care of our brothers and sisters in uniform, we're taking care of our families and friends back home,” said Hender.
While deployed to the CENTCOM Area of Operations, Soldiers will often spend days in other countries outside of their assigned base in order to meet mission requirements – many of which do not have the same turnout for vaccines or testing available as the United States.
This inherently results in an increased likelihood of Soldier’s being exposed to the disease. This mandatory testing is one of the many measures put in place by the Army Central Command to take care of Soldiers and their families, ensuring they remain healthy.
Members of the 111th TEB could not be happier that they are able to stay in the fight and help eliminate COVID-19 from the ranks of the U.S. Army daily.
“The 111th TEB was ready and available to take on the challenge,” said Watson. “That’s what we do in the 111th. We support our fellow Service Members and make things happen.”