MADISON — More than 1,200 members of the Wisconsin National Guard are serving in support of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many are doing so in addition to working to complete their degrees.
Soldiers and Airmen working long days supporting the state's response to COVID-19 also are resigned to staying up long into the night or working weekends to get homework, tests and assignments complete. These Guard members -- many of whom attend colleges and universities around Wisconsin -- go the extra mile to find balance between their military and civilian lives.
Guard members have been logging long hours, day and night, and over weekends for nearly three months supporting the state’s response to the pandemic, and for some, their mobilization began in mid-March -- a few short months before they were slated to graduate from college, which required them working late nights or weekends to get homework, tests and assignments completed in order to graduate.
Wisconsin National Guard coronavirus test site Racine
Many of the citizen-soldiers and airmen serving as part of the response exchanged the thought of walking across the stage in caps and gowns for wearing masks and personal protective equipment as they step up and answer the call for prolonged activation at community-based testing sites, self-isolation facilities, supporting the logistics effort or serving on a staff. Many have continued with an ongoing commitment to service even amid the unknown.
Putting their personal lives, goals and ambitions on hold is commonplace for many members of the military, and higher education often takes a backseat to deployments, training, or other military requirements over the course of a military career.
“One of the hardest things for me at this time, is that I don’t know if I can apply for jobs, even though I’ve graduated because I’m not certain when this mission will end,” said Tech. Sgt. Bridget Cox, a medical technician with the 115th Fighter Wing and the Wisconsin National Guard’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP).
Cox just graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. Cox is currently serving as the noncommissioned officer-in-charge at an isolation facility providing medical monitoring to people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
“My university was very understanding of my goals and all that is going on in life and they were able to help me get to the finish line,” Cox said. “Serving during this time has been challenging while trying to support my family and finish school. I am also trying to find work, but it’s difficult to communicate with future employers when I don’t know when I will be available to start with them at this time.”
Tech. Sgt. Bridget Cox, 115th Fighter Wing, Madison, Wisconsin (Courtesy: Wisconsin National Guard)
Staff Sgt. Christina Whitney, a medical instructor at the 426th Regional Training Institute, also recently completed her degree.
“My military career has always been a part of my education as I returned to get my Associates Degree in nursing after I joined the military,” she said. “This semester I was not scheduled for any training to interrupt my schooling and was looking forward to that.
“COVID-19 changed that for me as well, and it was really tough with 14 credits and three kids. It felt really good to finish and overcome all of those barriers as I prioritized and completed my educational goals.
“My professors were supportive and understood how tough this was for us all...I’m glad to be able to serve and glad that I was able to finish the semester of school by working with my teachers and the school to allow me to graduate.”
Staff Sgt. Christina Whitney, 426th Regional Training Institute, Fort McCoy, Wisconsin (Courtesy: Wisconsin National Guard)
According to Maj. Joy Staab, the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs education services officer, more than 1,000 Wisconsin Guard members use state education benefits each semester on average. Even more use federal education benefits, she said.
“Education benefits are one of the top reasons service members join the Wisconsin National Guard,” Staab said.
Throughout this semester the state education office had a few dozen service members reach out to find out what options they had for withdrawing from or completing their classes, as they got mobilized to support COVID-19 missions. In those cases, the education office referred the service members to the 2019 Wisconsin Act 75, a state law that helps protect service members called to serve on short-term state or federal active duty.
Some of the protections include tuition reimbursement, re-enrollment, and opportunities to complete final projects and exams at a later date. The education office also encouraged students to work with their instructors, colleges, and universities to determine their best courses of action.
“I graduated in December 2019, then did a five-week temporary duty, passed my nursing board exam and became an emergency room nurse,” said Tech. Sgt. Andrew Zacharias, a search and extraction medic with the 115th Fighter Wing and the CERFP. “I was only there (at my new job) for three weeks and then was requested to be a part of the isolation facility mission, and I have been on mission since then. It’s hard to not be home but right now with the world in a time of need, it’s what needs to be done.”
Spc. Emma Anderson, 112th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Madison, Wisconsin (Courtesy: Wisconsin National Guard)
Spc. Emma Anderson, a public affairs specialist that mobilized in March during her last semester of student teaching, graduated with her Bachelor of Science in Education with a licensure to work with and instruct students, aged birth to 11.
“To be activated during the COVID-19 pandemic gives me an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Anderson said. “I get to show my community and the kindergarteners that I work with through student teaching, that service isn’t about how it positively impacts you as an individual, but how you can positively impact those around you.”
Currently, more than 1,200 Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers and Airmen continue serving their communities as part of the COVID-19 response.
Nearly 1,500 mobilized to state active duty in recent weeks to assist civil authorities in maintaining public safety amidst civil unrest, and more than 2,400 Guard members mobilized in April to serve as poll workers during the state’s spring election.
Simultaneously more than 500 remain mobilized in places like Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and Ukraine in support of the Guard’s federal mission as the primary combat reserve of the Army and Air Force.