LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. – Since the start of the global pandemic that introduced COVID-19 to the world, Airmen assigned to the 56th Medical Group have participated in six missions to combat the disease. The most recent mission took place during a month-long assignment that began in February of 2022.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent requests for assistance on behalf of hospitals that were suffering from staffing shortages and patient overcrowding due to COVID-19. In response, Air Force medical teams consisting of doctors, nurses, and technicians from several bases provided defense support for civil authority across the country.
“It’s not common for military medical personnel to work with civilians in this capacity,” said U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Rony Castaneda-Zamora, 56th Operational Readiness Squadron flight operational medical technician. “I've been in [the Air Force] 12 years and this is the first time I've ever gotten this kind of tasking. It was very unique for sure.”
Members from the 56th MDG traveled to hospitals in New York, Connecticut, and Maine to assist staff and frontline workers. Although each hospital’s needs and operations varied by location, the overall objective remained the same across the board.
“The mission wasn't only taking care of COVID patients, it was supporting the medical staff,” said Air Force Col. Colleen Frohling, 56th MDG chief nurse. “The hospital was overwhelmed so our task was to embed ourselves within the units and take care of patients.”
Despite swapping their camouflage and boots for scrubs and sneakers, these military medical professionals continued to embody the Air Force’s core values: “Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in All We Do.” Castaneda-Zamora recalled the praise they received from the civilian nurses for their ability to adapt and tackle challenges.
“Forty-eight hours after taking the hospital’s training, we were taking our own patients,” said Castaneda-Zamora. “They told us that it was unbelievable how we got our first patients quickly without their help and opened up a whole floor to care for patients.”
Not only did this mission help relieve hospitals in need but it also provided military and civilian health professionals the opportunity to learn from one another while combating COVID-19 and its effects on patients and the medical community.
“We take an oath to defend the citizens of the United States from all enemies foreign and domestic.” said Frohling. “COVID-19 is a domestic enemy. Working alongside the people that we have taken an oath to support and defend in order to care for patients was a gift.”
Since returning from the assignment, it is back to business at the 56th MDG, where staff provide healthcare, promote safety and wellness, and ensure military readiness.