Meet two of its members who have helped sustain the state’s testing capacity by collecting more than 900,000 samples since March.
When the coronavirus hit Wisconsin, the men and women of the Wisconsin National Guard stepped up to set up what would eventually be the state’s most coordinated free coronavirus testing sites.
During the past eight months, 1,600 troops have been deployed, collecting more than 900,000 coronavirus tests from Wisconsin residents across the state.
In the past few weeks alone, the troops have collected, on average, more than 50,000 tests per week, as the demand for testing climbs and the state surpasses 300,000 positive cases and 3,100 deaths.
“Obviously testing is important, and obviously the role of the National Guard has been extremely, extremely important,” said Gov. Tony Evers Tuesday during a call with reporters. “They’ve done a great job.”
Major Maria Garcia and Staff Sergeant Isaiah Ervine are among the 1,600 National Guard troops that have responded to the call to help combat the coronavirus.
When Garcia was called up for the Wisconsin National Guard’s COVID-19 testing mission, she, like many of her colleagues, assumed it would be 30 days at most. But as December approaches, some members are reaching their tenth month on this mission.
“When I came on I never envisioned that it would be this many months,” Garcia said. “I think everybody had that same expectation of it not being this long.”
The long deployment has been a sacrifice for many members who have been unable to spend as much time with their families.
Garcia has been in the Guard for 23 years and before moving to Wisconsin, she lived in Florida, where she worked logistics and operational support during hurricane missions. Those missions usually involved long, 12- or 13-hour days, but they usually wrapped up within two or three weeks.
She was brought on in May when testing was rapidly ramping up, making sure that teams on the ground had the personal protective equipment and testing kits they needed at least one or two days prior to when community testing would begin.
“The biggest challenge is when there’s changes or increases to the mission at the last minute,” Garcia said. “But I think we work really well together as a team from our state headquarters.”
Ervine started out the mission working with those teams on the ground. Ervine has been with the National Guard for 13 years and was a cook for most of his service. In 2009 and 2010, he was deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. But this was his first opportunity to serve stateside, so despite having two toddlers at home, he didn’t hesitate when he was called.
“I joined the Guard to help out as needed within the state, within the country, but the only mission I ever got outside of my normal training was overseas,” Ervine said. “So when this opportunity came, or any opportunity that is presented to me for state help, I always try to volunteer for it.”
Since this mission doesn’t need any cooks, Ervine has been thrown into a few different positions. He worked at a polling station in Stoughton on the April 7 election and then in May led a squad of 10 men running COVID-19 testing. His squad was dispatched to corrections facilities, workplaces, and community testing sites.
“I’ve gotten a wide range of responses from people,” he said.
At some of the workplace missions, Ervine said some employees were upset because“they felt that they were being forced to be tested.”
“In that situation we try to normalize it and explain to them why we’re there,” he said.
He was a little nervous about testing at correctional facilities just because he didn’t know what to expect.
“The inmates actually understand why we’re here. They know we’re not here to take this over so it’s just like, ‘Let’s just get this over and done with so we can get back to our rec time,’” Ervine said. “It’s interesting, the inmates are more curious about us: why we joined and what’s it like.”
But he said most of the time people were happy to see Ervine and his National Guard colleagues and in some cases wanted to get to know them. One of his colleagues invited him to go deer hunting with him for the first time.
“I’ve seen more of Wisconsin than I’ve ever seen and I’ve lived here for 16 years,” he said. “It’s been eye-opening the different types of people.”
As the mission continued into the summer, everyone had to work one-hour shifts and then take two hours off to cool off. As the mission continues into winter, Garcia said she’s been purchasing hand-warmers, heaters and finding other solutions to keep the teams warm.
One of the personal challenges for Garcia as the mission goes on is that she doesn’t get to see her sons, who are 8 and 13 years old, as often as she did before COVID-19. But it’s also given her an opportunity to show her family what she does and what impact it can have.
“This is where I can show them that this is where providing service to our country is something that I do and it’s an honor for me to do it even though it’s challenging,” she said. “I think the military helps you to prepare for sometimes you don’t find a full balance [in life] but you remember that there’s a bigger mission.”
Ervine has moved up to a supervisory position, giving him a chance to develop his leadership skills and show he’s more than a cook.
“What I did as a civilian was never taken into consideration but being here now I get to show up some of the skills sets I’ve developed over time,” he said. “I get that leadership experience that I get to bring back home with me as a civilian once this is all over.”
He’s also fortunate that his office job allows him to stay in Madison with his wife and two children. But he knows that several of his colleagues are not as lucky.
“I actually get to go home and see my family every day but I know that other soldiers are not in the same situation as me so they may be stressing out,” he said. “I’m sure there’s some fatigue out there. There’s some that may want to go home.”