Blaine Williams of 1st Battalion, 186th Infantry Regiment of the Oregon National Guard, helps health care technician Heather Smith change patient bedding at Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg in August 2021. (Maj. W. Chris Clyne, Oregon National Guard Public Affairs)
The Oregon National Guard is once again on the move to help the state’s hospitals.
The order to do so came Wednesday from Gov. Kate Brown – less than a month after Guardsmen had completed the largest in-state mobilization in history.
This time, up to 500 Guardsmen will be tasked to help as omicron surges, putting more people into hospital care.
The last of the 1,588 Guardsmen sent into communities during the first round ended that duty Dec. 10.
They helped with a range of new tasks to free up medical professionals to focus on patients. They helped tend to patients as well.
“We took wrench turners – tank operators and aircraft mechanics – and asked them to go into ICU and physically put their hands on people on ventilators, helping move people from one side to the other,” said Amy Almond-Schmid, senior enlisted leader. “We don’t equip our members for that.”
Brown acknowledged the service in a ceremony last month.
“I cannot overstate how much of a difference this mission has made in keeping Oregonians safe and healthy,” she told the Guardsmen. “And this was after door-to-door winter storm support, wildland firefighting, and deployments both overseas and domestic.”
Almond-Schmid helped orchestrate Joint Task Force Reassurance, which ultimately put Guardsmen in 50 Oregon hospitals, clinics and vaccination sites. The costs were covered by the federal government.
She said it’s clear the hospital duty affected the mental health of some Guardsmen, including post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“There could be a potential form of PTSD we’ve never experienced before,” she said. “I had 21-year-olds watching two people die a day” in hospitals.
The first deployment started in August, with officials at the Oregon Health Authority coordinating with the National Guard’s command staff to determine which hospitals needed help.
Initially, Almond-Schmid said, the National Guard was asked to staff up only in southern Oregon, where hospitals were deluged with patients.
“Once the rest of the state saw that same surge, it was apparent we were going to have to mobilize more members across the state,” she said.
Guardsmen were alerted they might have to go on duty in a text message. Those activated got an email with their assignment.
The Army National Guard handled the first assignments in southern Oregon. The Air National Guard took on Portland-area hospitals because of the proximity of its Portland air base.
The logistics were complex – “extensive and exhausting,” according to Almond-Schmid, a 21-year veteran.
Guardsmen who held civilian jobs in the medical field were exempted from the mobilization. The Army Guard mobilized entire units and then the Air Guard had to organize drilling members “hodge-podge” to meet the needs, Almond-Schmid said.
Units were deployed where they were needed, and then the National Guard adjusted assignments to put units into hospitals closer to their home base.
An Air National Guard unit from Klamath Falls, for instance, was assigned to Salem Hospital and to Eugene hospitals before returning to help in its home city.
The mobilization hit employers.
“We pulled from every other industry – roofers, Les Schwab technicians,” Almond-Schmid said. “We yanked and pulled them from all of those other suffering industries.”
Guard commanders would meet small business owners, such as one who had only two employees. One was mobilized by the Guard for duty in the local hospital.
National Guardsmen encountered other stresses when they returned home.
“They were sometimes going home to a family that was anti-vax or not interested in hearing how many people were really sick,” Almond-Schmid said.
She said the National Guard is paying close attention to the impact the deployment had and preparing wellness workshops and other measures to help.
Commanders visited nearly every hospital during the fall mobilization.
“It was nothing but thanks – a lot of tears, a lot of thanks,” said Almond-Schmid.
She said Guardsmen, including those who have deployed on overseas missions, appreciated the chance to serve in Oregon.
Almond-Schmid quoted as an example a chemical engineer in the Guard who does “really big-brain stuff” who was tasked to hospital chores.
“I’ll stay on this mission as long as possible because it’s first time I feel I served my own community,” the engineer told Almond-Schmid.
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