By Whitney Humphrey
The second floor of the U.S. Army Reserve building in South Charleston, West Virginia, may seem at first glance like an unassuming office space.
Within that space, however, resides a unit who plays a crucial role in the health and success of the West Virginia National Guard, and that continues to perform critical missions to ensure the safety of all West Virginians during the COVID-19 pandemic: the West Virginia Army National Guard Medical Detachment, or MEDDET.
“While our primary mission is always medical readiness for our troops, over the past year MEDDET has been actively engaged in COVID-19 response efforts throughout the state,” said Lt. Col. Gerald Clark, MEDDET commander. “From manning hotlines to overseeing testing events to administering vaccines, our members have been at the very forefront of the pandemic response here in West Virginia.”
“It has been a long and arduous haul for us, but we are very proud to have had such an important role in helping to protect our fellow soldiers and West Virginians,” he added.
COVID-19 operations over the past year have meant long hours, lots of weekends and thousands of miles on the road, as well as countless tests and vaccines administered by MEDDET personnel. But it is a mission they have embraced with both dedication and enthusiasm.
“We’ve swabbed a couple people and gave a few shots,” Lt. Col. John Snedegar, MEDDET Training Officer, said with a laugh. Snedegar is a registered nurse and, like many other Guard members, has been on COVID orders for more than a year.
Snedegar remarked at how much has changed over the past 15 months since COVID-19 response began, and he noted how important a role the WVNG has played in response and recovery.
“There was a lot of fear because we didn’t know anything about COVID,” Snedegar said. “As the virus was becoming a problem in other states, MEDDET sent people to man the COVID hotline at the Poison Control Center in Charleston and we put people on state active duty. At that time, we had the most up-to-date information and people were calling with questions about COVID but also asking what to do as they began to lose their jobs and have financial trouble.”
Although Snedegar and his crew spent weeks learning about the new disease and preparing to respond, it wasn’t until the first positive test came on March 17, 2020, that the threat truly became real.
“Until then, COVID was a distant thing and West Virginia felt like it had a barrier around it,” Snedegar said. “I can recall getting the first case in Charleston and sitting at the COVID hotline at Charleston Area Medical Center - Memorial and thinking ‘COVID is literally 100 yards from where I’m sitting.’ Little did we know how this would evolve over the coming months.”
As the COVID situation developed, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice established the Joint Interagency Task Force for COVID-19 Vaccines, comprised of state government leaders, private sector partners and the WVNG. The Guard, along with the West Virginia Emergency Management Division, were tasked with logistics for the receipt, storage and distribution of vaccines to end-user organizations including pharmacies, local health departments and others, along with the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to help keep soldiers safe when administering tests and vaccines.
Snedegar said MEDDET personnel tested West Virginians across the state for COVID using nasal swabs and saliva testing. He credits the Guard’s ability to mobilize in getting tests to all parts of the state, both rural and urban.
“The Guard brings logistic ability that civilian agencies don’t have,” Snedegar said. “We bring the ability to mobilize people and to make things happen, as well as the practical experience and subject-matter expertise to accomplish the mission efficiently and professionally.”
Although MEDDET has received a lot of attention because of COVID response, the unit has a longer history with the National Guard.
“It’s been around for quite a while, but not with that name,” said Snedegar, who has worked with the unit for about 14 years.
Originally known as DET 5 Stark, the unit’s name was officially changed to Medical Command in around 2007 or 2008. Later, the name changed to MEDDET. Currently, plans are in place to update the unit’s name once again to the Medical Readiness Detachment, which better reflects its primary military mission of keeping soldiers healthy and preparing them for deployment.
“Medical readiness equals soldier readiness,” Clark said. “If you’re not medically fit, you can’t deploy and you aren’t ready for the war fight. So that’s a key part of where we fit into the big picture for both our state and federal missions.”
As the unit’s name has evolved, so, too has, its operations. Although MEDDET has always focused on medical readiness, the way medical personnel working within the unit accomplishes that goal has changed.
“There used to be only two people in the unit throughout the week when we were just training and there wasn’t a lot of business, so to speak,” Snedegar said. “Over time, as the mission has changed and there’s been a greater need for soldiers to deploy, our footprint has grown quite a bit. Our job went from making sure people were healthy and fit enough to stay in the Guard to what we have today, which is having medically ready soldiers whether it’s a mission overseas or maybe a state mission like a flood or natural disaster or COVID, so it’s changed quite a bit. As the mission changes, we adapt to that.”
MEDDET provides annual medical and dental evaluations, administers regular required vaccinations and screenings and provides a wide array of training for the WVNG, including Combat Medic, Tactical Combat Casualty Care, Field Sanitation and Hearing Conservation courses, among others. The unit also provides free CPR and AED (automatic external defibrillator) training to Guard members.
Today, MEDDET also includes behavioral health, which helps soldiers handle mental health issues including suicidal ideation; occupational health, which is responsible for many of the training programs like Radiation Safety; and a nutritionist who helps soldiers control their weight and stay physically fit.
All that works in concert to ensure West Virginia National Guard soldiers are physically and mentally ready to serve. As a result, West Virginia often ranks at or near the top in many categories, including medical readiness. That means more federal funding for MEDDET and more opportunities to meet soldiers’ health needs.
“For so many years, the West Virginia National Guard Medical Detachment has kept medical readiness at the top among all 54 states and territories,” Snedegar said. “It’s good to be No. 1 one in that. When you can say you’re No. 1 in medical readiness, that’s something to be proud of for sure.”
With responsibility for the critical readiness mission, its ability to flexibly adapt to emerging challenges and its proven role in mission success, MEDDET will continue to be a premier operational unit for the West Virginia National Guard.