CRTC guardsmen aiding COVID-19 fight
ALPENA — In 2020’s great battle against the coronavirus, National Guard members wielding nasal swabs were mobilized by the thousands to assist local health departments in conducting COVID-19 tests.
Alpena was part of that effort.
Eight guardsmen from the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center were activated for state COVID-19 support missions since March, according to Capt. Andrew Layton, public affairs officer for the Michigan National Guard.
Master Sgt. Billy Fields, full-time guardsman and medical officer at the CRTC, spent five weeks administering COVID-19 tests at nursing homes in the spring.
It’s work he never expected to do when he enlisted.
“We all knew we were doing something that had never been done before,” Fields said. “We were part of a much bigger picture. We all took a lot of pride in that.”
In 2020, the National Guard stepped into the limelight as droves of full- and part-time guardsmen were called on in a year of wildfires, racial tensions, and the pandemic.
By mid-December, the National Guard had mobilized more members than at any time since World War II, logging a combined 8.4 million days of domestic active duty since January, according to the Army Times.
Fields, employed full-time at the CRTC for nine years, was assigned in May to one of many three-person teams. Rotations of teams were shuttled around the state throughout the year, testing workers and residents at long-term-care facilities and prisons.
Usually, Fields said, people expect to see the National Guard filling sandbags at war zones and natural disasters.
In a way, he said, fighting the coronavirus fit that bill.
In the early days of testing, Fields said, the National Guard hit snags in a massive testing operation that meant coordinating 1,100 guardsmen to give the 206,000 tests administered in Michigan since March.
They weren’t always sure where they were supposed to be testing, or whose nose to swab, Fields said.
The COVID-19 response marked the first time the Michigan Air National Guard and Michigan Army National Guard worked side-by-side in a joint domestic mission of this scale, Fields said.
The two forces had the same goal, but not always the same language, each using their own specialized vocabulary and acronyms, Fields said.
“The solution for that was, really, just speaking plain language,” he said. “We realized we were all in the same boat, rowing the same direction.”
Guardsmen employed at the CRTC are loyal to Northeast Michigan, Fields said. As teams worked to control COVID-19, though, he was struck by the coming together of people from all over the state who set aside their regional affiliations to become Team Michigan.
“It was no longer, ‘You’re from Alpena, you’re from Battle Creek,'” he said. “It was, ‘We’re from the Michigan Air National Guard, and we’re here to help.'”
The deep-dive interior nasal swabs his team administered were uncomfortable, but most employees and elderly residents took it like champs, he said.
He recalled one long day of testing residents who had been behind locked doors for weeks, separated from family and friends and all of normal life.
At the end of the day, the guardsmen wheeled the residents outside and knelt beside them as much-missed family members drove past, honking and waving.
“That was a pretty rewarding day,” Fields remembered.
In a deep southern accent that gives away his Alabama roots, Fields said he’s fond of Alpena and hopes to buy a home locally when he retires, although he knew nothing about the area when he took the job.
“The first time I heard people in New York talking about going to Alpena, I thought it was somewhere in the Middle East,” he said.
When he accepted a post at the CRTC, he did an online search for things to do in Alpena.
“It came back — and I’m not making this up — ‘No results found,'” Fields said, laughing.
Being a hands-on part of the effort to protect Michiganders from COVID-19 is something he’d gladly do again, without hesitation, he said.
Seven other CRTC guardsmen participated in the massive behind-the-scenes planning required to make the testing possible.
The National Guard will still conduct tests for some months, but it is also shifting to the offensive, with guardsmen beginning to administer COVID-19 vaccines, according to Layton.
Meanwhile, the CRTC on Dec. 15 welcomed its first busloads of Air Force members who will quarantine at the base for two weeks before being deployed overseas.
He wasn’t doing anything heroic, Fields said — just the job of a National Guardsman.
“It was like every day,” he said, “putting the uniform on and doing what needs to be done.”