The American public watched as the National Guard filled highly-visible roles throughout the coronavirus response for testing patients, distributing meals and setting up field hospitals. The lesser-known story is that of soldiers like Sgt. Guiseppe Vignolesi who had the grim task of aiding Guardsmen in processing the death stemming from COVID-19.
Vignolesi, 30, is a religious affairs NCO with New York Army National Guard. He provides spiritual guidance, counseling, and mental and morale welfare. After being activated in late March, his job was to assist on calls for recovery of “the unattended.”
“Our responsibility was to do recovery of the remains, so we would go out on calls with the medical examiner’s office — we would be assigned a medical examiner — we go to residences, apartment buildings, nursing homes, hospitals, morgues, and project housing and we would go retrieve the remains of those that were deceased for both COVID and non-COVID,” Vignolesi said.
In his civilian career, Vignolesi works in law enforcement so this type of work is not uncommon, but he was cognizant of the fact that many of the Guardsmen were brought to the frontlines untrained for what they would see.
“My role was to provide mental welfare for those soldiers and how I could do that in a unit is I have to get out there with them. On the civilian side I’m a first responder, I work in law enforcement so it’s (death) something I had already experienced,” he said. “Basically, just get out there with them (soldiers) and do the recoveries and really try and engage with leadership and make sure you look to your left and your right; make sure everybody’s OK because not everybody’s a first responder, not everyone had ample training leading up to this. People from all walks of life from the civilian side — electricians, mechanics, people that work in fast food service — people who weren’t prepared or ready to do this sort of work got thrown into the frontline of this.”
By June, NYNG personnel had assisted in recovering 2,834 remains, according to Eric Durr, director of public affairs.
At the peak of the COVID-19 mission, New York had 3,600 members activated from the NYARNG, New York Air Guard, New York Naval Militia and New York Guard, Durr stated. Among them, Spc. Elyse Jones who describes the scenario as comparable to “nothing” in her life.
Jones is a medic that was assigned to the Alpha Company Strike Team at the Glenn Island testing site.
“I did anything from preventative stuff with them, keeping an eye on them, treating any small issues and then referring them to a medical provider at Camp Smith if they needed to be seen by someone. We also were responsible for checking vital signs for all of the employees, so we did temp screens in the morning and then everyone had to go through the vital stations before and after their shifts to make sure they were staying healthy and make sure nobody was popping a fever during the day,” Jones said.
Her unit received ongoing training at all stages of activation regarding their own safety, she says. Items like donning and doffing PPE were continually enforced.
As prominent as COVID-19 has been in recent months, it did not slow down other commitments required of Guardsmen including deployments. Jones’ home unit is anticipated to deploy in the fall, something that weighs on her mind as she experienced a taste of what it’s like to be separated from her family. Albeit for a much shorter time period, she said it was the hardest part of her stateside mission.
“More than anything probably just being away from my family, my son, my dog. That was the hardest part knowing I was still somewhat close but also just knowing that I needed to be responsible and not be running home on my days off potentially because I was being exposed to the virus all the time but also just to not wear myself down so I would be fit for duty every day,” Jones said.
She adds that as much as the unexpected is a known part of the job, the “uncertainty” of this mission felt different.
“Just speaking for myself personally, because I’m still new to the Guard, but then after working with some of the people I worked with, I think that this response happened — because it had to — so suddenly that I think it was a kind of adjustment, it was unexpected. Usually if you go on active-duty orders, from what I know, you have kind of set dates to start and end. … Even though there is an end date of their (soldiers) orders, it changed frequently. It is new and different for everyone to not have a true sense of when they’re going to essentially be off orders, but also the way in which everyone got activated and not knowing what they’re returning home to. All that uncertainty,” she said.
New York remained a coronavirus hot spot with statewide numbers reaching 383,944 at the time of reporting, according to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s website. For those native to the state, large-scale events are not new, says Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Maloney, but its far-reaching impact was.
“I think each time is unique in its own way. My first mission was Ground Zero so that is different on its own and then overseas deployment. Superstorm Sandy. This one was a little bit more unique because it affected everybody and not just certain areas,” Maloney said. “I think it affected a lot more people personally.”
Maloney, a human resources NCO, enlisted 20 years ago after being attracted to the dual-mission of the Guard supporting stateside and overseas needs.
“When I was in high school, I really enjoyed the idea of helping people out. I heard about the National Guard and saw them on TV. I also liked the idea of serving,” he said.
He was initially brought in to the pandemic response for a different mission, but it was called off. He says he and a few others sought permission to aid at the Javits Center in New York City.
“We helped in areas that we have some background in, so I fell in with a safety team providing safety — not so much security — but safety of the building as far as slowing the spread of the virus, soldier safety, civilian safety, patient care safety,” Maloney said. “The day to day was ensuring patient care. … When you walked in there (Javits Center) you knew you weren’t there for you, you were there for them (patients), whether they were in the ICU or the general COVID center. Your focus was ensuring that they get better and then that everyone supporting the mission stays safe.”
He also says the overall role the Guard has played around the country in fighting the virus reinforces its value.
“I preach the Guard because of our missions. Our mission is all over the board and we have to be able to adapt so quickly and who would have thought there would be something along the lines of a virus coming through this country and the Guard would have to help fight it. The broad range of the Guard mission is amazing. I think that’s why people join the Guard, we’re able to join the fight wherever needed,” Maloney said.
At the time of publication, 84,000 are engaged in homeland and overseas missions. President Trump extended National Guard Title 32 orders into mid-August, according to a FEMA release.Read comments