After historic responses to COVID-19 and civil unrest, Illinois National Guard winds down its deployment
By CHRISTY GUTOWSKI AND STACY ST. CLAIR | Chicago Tribune | Published: July 10, 2020
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CHICAGO (Tribune News Service) — The Illinois National Guard was already in the midst of an unprecedented mission, on the ground around the state administering thousands of COVID-19 tests, when there was another urgent call for help.
Protests over the death of George Floyd had given way to looting, vandalism and violent clashes in parts of Chicago, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker called for the Guard to assist police in quelling the unrest. It was clear even more of their troops would need to be deployed.
“Those folks all packed their bags, put on their uniforms, laced their boots up really tight and were on the street within 10 to 12 hours,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard Neely said Thursday while reflecting on the Guard’s historic mission that is now winding down.
With the motto “Always ready, always there,” members of the Guard are used to being called up when disaster strikes at home or overseas. But never in its nearly 300-year history has it been put to the test more than this year, Neely said, as members responded to the high-risk coronavirus pandemic and walked a fine line assisting police at protests without overstepping their role.
As the spread of COVID-19 slows in Illinois, Neely told the Tribune it’s a perfect time for the Guard to step out and allow the remaining active service members to return to their daily lives after a mandatory two-week, post-deployment quarantine period. Roughly 100 service members will remain active through July to assist contract staffers at testing sites and perform other duties during the transition.
After fighting floods and election-related cybersecurity attacks earlier this year, nearly 3,000 troops have aided in various missions across Illinois since March. At the height of its response, about 1,400 troops were on duty in Illinois.
“We call them citizen soldiers because they’re civilians. In day-to-day life, they’re our neighbors, folks you go to church with, or who you see at a grocery store, the bank or a synagogue,” said Neely, the Illinois adjutant general. “These aren’t full-time warriors. They’re part time, and they come when the state calls.”
Among the most challenging of missions came in June after Gov. J.B. Pritzker deployed the troops to help police deal with massive demonstrations across Illinois, especially Chicago.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot had asked the governor to send the Guard to help tamp down the violence, the first time the city has made such a request since Mayor Richard J. Daley brought in troops for the ill-fated Democratic National Convention in 1968.
Such a job is one that Neely said he is “the least comfortable with.” He said the governor, local mayors and others involved in the emergency response supported his stance for a less aggressive approach.
Troops secured street closures, controlled traffic flow and guarded malls and other infrastructure while working closely with the Illinois State Police. Besides Chicago, the Guard also assisted in suburbs like Aurora and Naperville and other parts of the state.
They had explicit orders not to interfere with peaceful protesters.
“We’re not law enforcement officers,” Neely said. “As guardsmen, we’re military. We go to war and we do not need to go to war in our cities. ... It was important to me (troops) were not putting their hands on civilians. So we didn’t do riot control and some of those other missions. We focused on supporting law enforcement, allowing them to do the things they’re best trained to do.”
The primary mission of the Illinois National Guard since March has been on the pandemic’s front line. It marked the first time soldiers and airmen has been mobilized to primarily combat a medical issue in Illinois.
In most mobilizations, members — many of whom had medical backgrounds — play behind-the-scenes roles. In the time of the coronavirus, however, they represent the military’s proverbial tip of the spear.
Neely said they took that responsibility seriously. Members handled a variety of jobs including assisting local health departments with reporting, providing medical assistance at Illinois prisons, working at the Cook County morgue and at the alternate care facility at McCormick Place.
No job proved more valuable — or directly helped more citizens — than their work at the Illinois Department of Public Health’s virus testing sites. The troops conducted about 233,000 tests since March, as they fought an invisible, largely unknown enemy in a war unlike any the military has ever waged.
Though the median deployment time is about 45 days, many extended their service, Neely said. For example, about 150 soldiers spent more than 100 days at testing sites.
Senior Airman Katia Campos, 21, raised her hand repeatedly to stay after helping to open up the first location in Harwood Heights, which Neely said became a national model that other states emulated, with members early on completing the daily capacity of 750 tests within five or six hours.
An emergency medical technician who lives in Jefferson Park, Campos had duties including overseeing testing and regularly checking the vital signs of service members. She worked at three testing sites. As Campos performed the nasal swabs in the pandemic’s early days, she recognized neighbors and co-workers coming through the line.
She saw their fear and uncertainty, and she knew, in that moment, that she would stay as long as the state needed her.
“It made me feel like I was making difference for my community during a very difficult time. That’s why I joined the National Guard in the first place,” said Campos, whose deployment began in March. “I wanted to see the mission through, no matter what.”
And there were difficult days. The troops worked during the violent spring weather, soldiering through snowstorms, downpours and oppressive heat. They also erected 11 testing sites from scratch, often getting them up and running within two days.
By necessity, much of the typical military protocol was turned on its head during the mission. To keep the coronavirus at bay, service members did not sleep near each other on cots, eat in large groups or spend much time together outside their shifts unless it was necessary.
Instead, they hunkered down in individual hotel rooms. Meetings were largely held via video conference, though participants were sometimes quartered just floors apart. Even the evening formation was reduced to the soldiers and airmen checking in with their supervisors via text message.
Campos admits it could be lonely, especially on days like Easter and Mother’s Day when she couldn’t be with her family. Even though her family was just a few miles away during her initial post, Campos told them to keep away for their own safety.
Instead, she has settled for regular FaceTime calls with her mom. The two last saw each other in mid-March.
“There was so much we didn’t know in the beginning and I just wanted to keep everyone safe,” she said. “The last thing any of (the Illinois National Guard members) wanted to do is expose someone to the virus accidentally.”
Illinois Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Samuel Rene also worried about his parents, both of whom work at health care facilities. In the early days at the Harwood Heights testing site, the 29-year-old Rogers Park man would come back from his shift and spend the rest of the night scouring the internet to purchase personal protective equipment for his parents.
In addition to his military responsibilities, Rene also continued working on his master’s degree in public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Rene says he fell behind on his studies at the beginning of his deployment, but with help from supportive professors, he completed the semester with a 4.0 grade-point average.
Indeed, many of the troops deployed for the COVID-19 mission were college students who finished their semesters from their hotel rooms. About two dozen graduated from college while working at testing sites.
Rene could have made it easier on himself by returning home earlier. But as one of the supervisors at the testing sites, he believed he had an obligation to help as long as the mission lasted. He worked at three testing sites and has stayed in five different hotels since March.
“This is a moment to do something important within my community,” he said. “I wasn’t going to walk away from it.”
The testing procedure evolved during the mission, beginning with the troops conducting the nasal swabs and progressing to the point where patients now do it themselves. The understanding of the virus also changed, as scientists learned more about how it was spread and best prevented.
Thirty-three members tested positive for COVID-19 during their deployments, an infection rate of about 1.2%, Neely said. All have either recovered or are recovering. Only a couple needed care outside the Guard’s internal medical support.
‘We’re always here'
Both Rene and Campos are serving two weeks of post-deployment quarantine. Rene is back home; Campos is spending the two weeks at a hotel. Both will receive the Armed Forces Service Medal and Humanitarian Service Medal from the U.S. Department of Defense to recognize their service.
Campos will go back to her job as an EMT with a private ambulance company, while Rene will return to school in the fall. Each said they would raise their hand to help again if a second wave rises.
“I think this experience has made me a better person,” Campos said. “It has taught me to think of other people and sacrifice in a way that I never had to before. I’m definitely better for having served during this time.”
Brig. Gen. Neely said he couldn’t be prouder of his troops’ dedication and professionalism during such a historic time. When asked to reflect on particular moments, he recalled the devastation caused to downtown Chicago amid some of the civil unrest. But, just a week later, he said, his spirits were lifted in watching the peaceful protests of thousands of people exercising their First Amendment rights.
“It gives you a lot of hope despite such challenging times for our country,” he said.
Should the virus-related statistics rise sharply, and the governor again call up members, Neely cited the Guard’s motto and promised they’d be back. He noted more than 1,000 Illinois National Guard members remain deployed overseas.
“We’re always here,” he said, “and ready in a moment’s notice.”
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