The coronavirus outbreak has brought significant changes to the way our nation operates. For example, every day since the pandemic hit the U.S., the public is continuously reminded of social distancing rules and best hygiene practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Likewise, most, if not all, organizations in the civilian sector and the military have established guidelines to identify mission-essential or mission-critical personnel to continue operations during the pandemic.
In the U.S. Army Reserve, the effects of such guidelines have impacted Troop Program Unit Soldiers, also known as TPUs. TPUs typically train one weekend a month for battle assembly and attend a two-week-long annual training exercise, all while maintaining a civilian job or going to school.
Staff Sgt. William J. Watt, an Army flight medic with Company C, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment (General Support Aviation Battalion), is a TPU Soldier who currently serves as a firefighter paramedic on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic with the South Metro Fire Rescue in Denver, Colorado.
“My role is to respond to COVID-19 patients from the Denver area who have become too sick to remain at home,” Watt said. “Most have severe respiratory distress, so my team and I try to get them to the hospital safely before they go into decompensated heart failure and eventually, cardiac arrest.”
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, as of April 9, there were 6,202 COVID-19 cases in the state, with 1,221 requiring hospitalization, and 226 virus-related deaths. Despite the increasing daily numbers, Watt is determined to answer the call to fight the COVID-19 pandemic by merging his military medical knowledge with his civilian medical profession.
As a flight medic, Watt brings another level of medical expertise to casualty evacuation by providing medical assistance to the critically injured during air ambulance transport in conventional or combat settings. During the weekends of battle assembly, Watt hones on these medical skills to stay up to date with the intricacies of patient care.
“Medical skills are rather perishable,” Watt said. “So, you can’t stop learning and improving. Fortunately, as a Soldier in the Army Reserve, I have the ability to cross-train the skill sets of both professions.”
In March, to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, in-person battle assemblies were suspended. However, to ensure Soldiers have the maximum means to maintain individual Soldier readiness, build resiliency, and provide stability and security to their families, the use of virtual battle assemblies, also known as VBAs, was authorized for all TPU commands.
According to Capt. Paul Castellini, commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 11th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade, VBAs will consist of online courses, administrative requirements, professional development sessions via teleconference, or documented physical training events to name a few.
For Watt, the implementation of VBAs is what he needed to continue serving his community.
“Like deployments, in a pandemic environment, you have to keep your guard up and stay alert to recognize invisible threats,” Watt said. “Unlike deployments, you worry about the threat coming from someone you work directly with because they could unknowingly be harboring an invisible danger. It’s this danger that makes COVID-19 harder than deployment to cope with because you don’t want to spread the virus to your loved ones.”
To prevent the risk of infection, Watt and his firefighting teammates are proactively cleaning the station and regularly donning protective gear.
“During a typical day, we clean the rigs and around the station much more than we used to,” he said. “We also clean and maintain the personal protective equipment we have so that it can be readily available. We wear the same level of PPE on all of our calls now because we have no way of knowing which patients are asymptomatic, and we don’t want to take any chances.”
For now, the nation’s future with COVID-19 seems uncertain, but for Watt, there is a glimpse of hope that things will return to normal one day.
“After the pandemic subsides, I intend to get a slot for Pathfinder School; that’s something I’ve been trying to do for a couple of years now,” Watt said. “I also want to make sure my platoon is fully prepared to answer the nation’s call, especially after the pandemic. As a leader, I’m going to help my Soldiers press on into tomorrow and model what it means to be a warrior and member of a team.”