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COVID-19: Response, resilience and readiness

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Chris Corso
  • 910th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

As COVID-19 quickly changed the world in early 2020, the resiliency, readiness and disaster preparedness of Youngstown Air Reserve Station were immediately tested. Through swift actions and Airmen going above and beyond, the pandemic was met head on. 

On March 17, 2020, Col. Casey Dodds, 910th Airlift Wing vice commander, and at the time, acting commander, started COVID safety protocols by limiting access to the installation to assigned personnel in accordance with Department of Defense, Department of the Air Force and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. 

“We appreciate the flexibility of everyone involved as we work diligently to bring the YARS family through this time of national crisis as safely as possible,” said Dodds, while announcing the measures. 

These restrictions remained in place through 2020 and well into 2021. 

Web programs like Microsoft Teams and Zoom offered physically distanced alternatives to the day-to-day operations of the 910th. With teleworking offered for many functions, leadership encouraged it to the maximum extent for Airmen who were able to complete their mission requirements from home. 

To continue leadership development at YARS, the 910th AW held its third annual Flight Commander’s Edge Air University course in February 2021. Earning positive feedback from Airmen across the base, FCE was held in a hybrid virtual and in-person format. The 910th Communications Squadron worked with the public affairs office to broadcast training sessions and speakers to small cell groups scattered throughout the base. The limited group size prevented COVID spread. Several students commented that the format was actually an improvement, providing more mentorship time and allowing more students to contribute to the discussion in the smaller groups.  

“Great leadership is a relay; sooner or later you’ve got to pass the baton,” said Capt. Jamila Thomas, a clinical nurse assigned to the 910th Medical Squadron and the lead coordinator for FCE. “The Flight Commander’s Edge course is one of the most beneficial Air University courses available to up-and-coming leaders. So much so that we changed the whole way of teaching it so we wouldn’t miss this year’s.” 

With the many changes to everyday life, mental health across the globe took a dramatic turn during the pandemic. Concern for the overall health and safety of the Airmen drove YARS’ helping agencies to quick action. 

Shelly Trimble, the base Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, offered her iRest meditation sessions through video conferencing, as did Karen Hazel-Johnson, the wing’s violence prevention integration specialist, with her yoga sessions. The chaplain’s office continued offering spiritual support to Airmen through virtual formats, and Terri Ann Naughton, the wing’s director of psychological health, offered counseling services online and via phone.  

“The base helping agencies are all still available and there is no reduction in services,” said Naughton, addressing the new methods of offering helping agency services. “Nothing has changed except we communicate in other ways than in person…You have to address heart, mind, body and soul to live a healthy COVID-19 existence.” 

In addition to keeping Airmen resilient on the home front, YARS Airmen went on the offensive and deployed to the frontlines, assisting in pandemic disaster relief. 

In April 2020, Lt. Col. Susan Gutlove, along with 14 other Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 910th Medical Squadron, went to the Jacob J. Javits Convention Center, a military-run popup hospital in New York City established to help treat the influx of COVID-19 patients. Other 910th MDS members served at Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx, New York. Even though COVID was still fairly new and much was needed to be learned along the way, Gutlove and the Reserve Citizen Airmen embraced the challenges head-on and stayed vigilant. 

“Javits was tough,” said Susan Gutlove. “I don’t really know if you can ease your way into patient care for people with COVID-19, but that was exactly what Javits was for us. We were able to ease into putting on all our personal protective equipment, like all the masks, protective gowns and eye protection.” 

Throughout the next few months, more members of the 910th Medical Squadron would also take on the duty of traveling to New York City to assist in COVID-19 relief. 

To salute medical workers and first responders, the 910th Airlift Wing presented the idea of “Hercs Over America,” which was quickly adopted by the 22nd Air Force’s C-130 units. Aircrew members assigned to the 757th Airlift Squadron performed flyovers of hospitals in Northeastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania in May 2020. The flights provided valuable training for aircrew members as well.  

Despite certain functions being limited during the pandemic, YARS stayed true to its mission of staying, “Combat ready NOW….for tomorrow’s fight!” in many ways. 

Rally in the Valley 2020, a distributed operations exercise consisting of five Air Force Reserve and one Air National Guard C-130 units, went on according to plan with a few slight modifications to combat the risk of COVID-19. Rather than all five squadrons flying out of the same installation for training sorties, they were strategically dispersed to a few installations. Once in the air, the aircraft rallied to carry out their objectives. Aircrews flying from the different installations never had physical contact with one another, mitigating COVID risk and proving the potential of the distributed operations model. 

As a result of YARS’ quick and efficient COVID-19 response, as well as other base accomplishments during 2020, the 910th Airlift Wing was awarded the inaugural Battle Born trophy by the 22nd Air Force.  

Despite everything that was hindered by COVID-19, the mission of Youngstown Air Reserve Station remained priority number one. While procedures and safety precautions changed, mission readiness remained measurably strong.