WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – With only 24 hours’ notice, seven Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 445th Airlift Wing packed their bags, said goodbye to their families and boarded a C-17 Globemaster III bound for New York City, where more than 67,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19. The team of Air Force medical professionals volunteered to deploy in response to the coronavirus crisis in New York.
“You’ve trained for this, and I know you are ready. I can’t thank you enough for accepting this call to serve. We stand behind you,” briefed Col. Raymond A. Smith, commander of the 445th Airlift Wing, as the crew prepared to depart Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, on Sunday afternoon.
The physician, nurse practitioner and five nurses, who are members of the 445th Aeromedical Staging Squadron and 445th Aerospace Medicine Squadron, flew to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, and then continued on to Manhattan, New York City, where they joined medical professionals from the civilian sector and all components of the armed services in response to COVID-19.
“This is what we’re trained for,” said Lt. Col. Karen G. Keller, nurse practitioner, 445th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, and mother of four. “We’re responding to the need.”
For some, this notification of need arrived just hours prior to departure.
First Lt. Jennifer Gerritsen, a prior-enlisted medical technician with nearly 20 years of military service, was covering a 12-hour overnight shift in the intensive care unit at Wright-Patterson Medical Center over the weekend. A clinical nurse, she works for the 88th Medical Group and is also a traditional reservist assigned to the 445th ASTS.
“They called me during the shift and asked if I was willing to go, and I said yes,” Gerritsen recalled. “I thought I would leave on Monday.”
She finished her shift at 6 a.m. on Sunday and went home to her family. Three hours later, she got another call.
“When I hung up the phone, I just looked over at my husband and told him, ‘They want me to leave today.’” Gerritsen said. “He immediately said, ‘Let’s get you packed.’”
Her husband, Senior Master Sgt. Kiley Gerritsen, is no stranger to deployment. In the past, the couple has deployed together. This time, Kiley is staying home with their children.
“It’s always hard to say goodbye, but we just told them, ‘Hey kids, mom has to leave. But she’s going to help people and she’ll be back,’” Gerritsen said.
The team of seven, who affectionately and informally named themselves “The COVID Commandos,” are working in the Jacob K. Javits Center, a 2.1-million-square-foot convention center converted into a makeshift hospital in Manhattan, New York City. The 24-hour field hospital currently boasts 3,000 beds solely for individuals potentially exposed to, or confirmed ill with, COVID-19.
“This virus is an invisible war. We have a responsibility and a calling to step up,” said Col. Hans F. Otto, commander of the 445th Aerospace Medicine Squadron and allergist, immunologist, and internist in the civilian sector.
As a commander, Otto said he was initially concerned that the individuals wouldn’t have sufficient time to make necessary financial, legal and medical arrangements prior to departure. He also has young children at home and a family to care for. As the pandemic unfolded, he had given his civilian employer an early warning that he may be tasked for duty, yet he was still caught off-guard.
“I communicated with my supervisor that we would know more in coming days or weeks, but then it ended up being days,” he said. “Suddenly what had been a possibility became certainty.”
His employer, along with the other Airmen’s employers, were supportive and understanding, despite the abrupt departure.
“Two months ago, nobody could have predicted this. Yet the team already had their bags packed,” Otto said. “They didn’t know what might come up one day or where they might be needed, but they were ready for the call; we are always ready.”
This deployment is part of a larger mobilization package of more than 120 doctors, nurses and respiratory technicians Air Force Reserve units across the nation provided over the past 48 hours in support of COVID-19 response to take care of Americans.
“We know what it’s like to be tired and work long shifts. We know this is going to be hard work,” Otto said. “We’re ready to join the fight.”