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Minutemen: How the West Virginia National Guard is adapting to face the coronavirus

Sgt. Albert Hardy with the 601st Engineer Support Company out of Buckhannon cuts a piece of Gore-Tex fabric for use in a face mask. -- Steven Allen Adams

KINGWOOD — The “riggers” of the 2/19th Special Forces Group at Camp Dawson in Preston County have trained to repair and pack parachutes for jumping out of airplanes.

Now, they’re cutting up those parachutes and operating Singer sewing machines to make prototype protective masks to fight their new enemy: the coronavirus.

It’s just one of the hundreds of coronavirus support missions taking place across the state by members of the West Virginia National Guard.

Some are full-time guardsmen, some have taken leave from their civilian jobs to serve and some have even come from out of state to lend a hand to West Virginia, a state with a population most at risk from coronavirus spread and death. It’s not a mission for which guardsmen have trained, but they have been trained to adapt to new missions. That is exactly what has allowed hardened warriors to become seamsters and seamstresses.

BEHIND THE MASK

Spec. Nick Heuring works a Singer sewing machine to create pleats in a face mask. -- Steven Allen Adams

It’s not just the 2/19th Special Forces Group making masks at Camp Dawson. Members of the 601st Engineer Support Company out of Buckhannon also are in the rigging shop cutting material, making the straps for the ears and sewing pleats to allow the mask to securely fit over the mouth and nose. Even former guardsmen and staff of the Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy at-risk youth program are lending a hand to the effort.

Guardsmen are cutting 9-foot strips of Gore-Tex, a breathable waterproof fabric, then cutting those strips into 9-inch squares. While the front of the mask is Gore-Tex, the inside is made of cotton sewed into the inside. While the mask doesn’t offer the same protection of the N-95 surgical mask, testing by West Virginia University found the mask does provide better protection than a basic face mask or cloth mask.

The guardsmen can make about 75 masks per day and have made more than 400, which are washed, dried, and sealed in plastic. For right now, the masks are being stockpiled should stockpiles of medical-grade surgical masks run low.

“We’re doing this seven days a week,” said 1st Sgt. Walter Dess, a supervisor at the Parachute Maintenance Facility. “It’s actually a great training experience opportunity because we don’t do as much parachute repair. We’re more into the packing and jumping portion of it, so this is great practice for the guys. After a month of this, they’re going to be pretty good on the machines.”

One of the men on the machines was Spec. Nick Heuring, who has been with the 2/19th Special Forces Group for three years, moving to Kingwood in October to join Echo Company. Heuring said the work they’re doing is both a great training exercise and a way to help the public.

Sgt. Adam Kerns, foreground, and Sgt. Brendan Hughes, background, work with fellow guardsmen on missions for Task Force CRE. -- Steven Allen Adams

“Being relatively new compared to these guys to the section, I haven’t gotten much hands on work doing the sewing, so it’s a great help to improve my skill for that,” Heuring said. “And of course, joining the guard I knew we’d be in situations where we have to help with the community, so it’s just a great opportunity to get to do that.”

Heuring said preparing to slow the spread of the coronavirus isn’t much different than any other combat situation. Soldiers must learn to adapt and pivot as the situations of a battle change. He said his training has allowed him to handle this new situation.

“You always see different things,” Heuring said. “You learn to adapt and learn with new equipment, especially when there’s new procedures or we get new equipment. We’re learning on the fly, adapting, and then coming up with a way that we can mass produce the masks quickly and efficiently.”

And it’s not just Gore-Tex masks. The National Guard is working with WVU and state community and technical colleges to churn out 3D printed masks. Nearly 400 printers working eight hours a day can make a mask every two hours, with more capacity coming on every day. The National Guard and the West Virginia Hospital Association also have created a process using hydrogen peroxide vapor to clean and sanitize N-95 masks for multiple uses.

Between all of these efforts, the Guard estimates they can produce 2,500 masks per day, with the goal of producing enough for every West Virginian.

A NEW BATTLEFIELD

As of the end of the week, the National Guard has conducted more than 414 missions with 619 guardsmen on active duty across the state. That’s not counting the 900 guardsmen stationed around the world on military deployments. The National Guard has been working on coronavirus preparations since Gov. Jim Justice issued the state of preparedness order at the beginning of March.

Since then, guardsmen have helped deliver thousands of meals to seniors and those in need, have manned phones for the coronavirus hotline, have delivered personal protective equipment to healthcare workers and first-responders, have assisted epidemiologists with the Bureau of Public Health conduct tests and complete case investigations, have helped process unemployment compensation applications for Workforce West Virginia, have worked to support broadband expansion for telehealth services, and have helped set up St. Francis Hospital in Charleston in case of a surge of new cases.

The first coronavirus-related mission was on March 10 when members of the National Guard’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High Yield Explosive Battalion, 35th Civil Support Team, and the 35th CBRN Enhanced Response Force Package helped train staff at Cabell Huntington Hospital for use of personal protection equipment in anticipation of coronavirus cases. At the time, the state still had no positive cases.

Since then, those three National Guard groups combined to form Task Force CRE. These guardsmen have trained nearly 400 first-responders, hospital staff, and retailers. These essential workers are learning how to properly use personal protective gear, how to take masks and gloves on and off, how to unload supply trucks safely to avoid contamination.

Sgt. Adam Kerns is a former volunteer firefighter from Williamstown. Now he works full-time with Task Force CRE at the West Virginia National Guard Armory in Fairmont helping train retail workers how to stay safe and avoid contamination while making sure the public has the food and supplies it needs.

“We’re just trying to get as many people as we can out just to help,” Kerns said. “We’re just here to help advise people and say hey, this is how you take care yourself. And then by taking care of yourself, you can take care of everyone else.”

With nursing homes in Monongalia, Kanawha, and Wayne counties becoming coronavirus hotspots, Kerns and other members of the task force are heading into these facilities to help test patients and staff. That’s where Sgt. Brendan Hughes, the senior medic, comes in. His job is to make sure guardsmen returning from missions where they might be exposed to the coronavirus are medically capable of going out on the next mission.

“Our mission here as med support is not only first off to take care of all of the troops and make sure that they are mission-capable and capable of doing anything and everything that we need of them, but it’s also to make sure that they’re medically safe and prepared for any mission that they come up to,” said Hughes, who is a police officer in Maryland. “When it comes down to it, we’re also helping — along with the chemical and biological experts in here as well — to make sure that they are medically able to go out and be safe.”

Part of Hughes’ mission also is to coordinate with doctors and hospitals and help train staff who normally don’t deal with infectious diseases so they can train others.

“That way, we can cross train and educate between both civilian and military components so that everybody out there is being as safe as possible, trying to reduce the amount of spread, and to continue our mission and also to assist the civilian populace in any way possible,” Hughes said.

For both Hughes and Kerns, it’s important to be where they are and doing the things they’re doing. Service in the National Guard is something they wanted to do and whether they’re helping during a natural disaster, deployed overseas in a war zone or now combating a virus, they’re committed to their missions.

“Everybody here is in a voluntary status,” Hughes said. “No one has been ultimately ordered to be here. So, every soldier that you see that’s walking around, they — every one of them — have raised their own self to say, ‘Yes, I will voluntarily come in here and do this on my own.'”

“This is why I get paid,” Kerns said. “Our work is being received better and better each day. As we head out to these clerks and stores, we get asked to come in to other stores. The more we’re out there and the more we’re in the public eye and they’re seeing what we’re doing, the more supportive they become.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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