Soldiers wrap up AIT training, set to return to Coronavirus hot spot

By Terrance BellApril 9, 2020

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FORT LEE, Va. (April 9, 2020) -- – After their graduation from advanced individual training courses here this week, two Army National Guardsmen and a Reservist will head home to New York – the nation’s leading COVID-19 hotspot with close to 5,500 deaths as of April 7.

More specifically, Pvt. Edwin Barreto, Pvt. Jaimy MejiaPolanco and Pfc. Sekiou Tessilimi – all Quartermaster School Automated Logistical Specialist Course students – will walk back into the proverbial belly of the beast, New York City, the current epicenter of the outbreak.

“It’s troublesome and scary,” said Tessilimi, a 30-year-old husband and a father who lives in the borough of Queens. “When I think about it, it’s a bad situation. I can’t do much about anything but take the precautions … until doctors find a solution.”

Tessilimi, a native of Benin who came to this country three years ago, said despite the crisis the city is facing, his initial entry training has left him well-prepared to deal with adversity.

“I have absolute confidence in myself and my abilities,” he said.

Barreto, a self-described patriot who always wanted to join the military, said the prospects are good he will be called upon to support relief efforts back home. He accepts the fact that it’s all part of being a Guardsman, but he did not fathom his first major “deployment” might occur in his own backyard.

“I absolutely never thought this could happen,” he said, adding that he expects to see deserted streets and long grocery lines. Media images from the “the city that never sleeps” now seem ghostly without the usual hordes of people riding the subways or sightseeing in bustling Times Square.

“It’s completely crazy to see this happen,” added 25-year-old Barreto, also a resident of Queens. “The amount of death in the U.S. and globally … this virus is expanding so fast. It’s kind of shocking, but I’m willing to help out once I get home. You know, help my community the best I can. The one thing I don’t look forward to is seeing New York the way it is now.”

None of the Soldiers know which specific unit they will be assigned to when they return home. They are aware, however, of the sorts of activities that are being supported by their fellow Reservists and Guardsmen. In New York and elsewhere, they are setting up expedient medical facilities, helping with traffic control, assisting medics at COVID-19 screening sites and moving supply shipments that include protective gear and lifesaving equipment for area hospitals.

Barreto said he would be happy to perform any of those tasks – the main byproduct of his military training being the desire to support the team and help battle buddies get the job done. However, there are additional challenges he’ll have to deal with that are a bit outside the scope of typical military training.

“Beside my mother and sister being laid off, I have heard from friends, and friends of friends and they’re all laid off,” he said. “It’s affecting a lot of people. I’m worried because New York is pretty expensive. You can’t live there if you don’t have a decent income.”

MejiaPolanco said she’s thankful her family is safe and nobody they know has been stricken with COVID-19. She lives in the Bronx with her parents and a younger brother and sister, who also is in the Guard. The 20-year-native of Honduras said she is looking forward to returning home but has come to grips New York will not be the same.

“I hope that when I return home, the coronavirus is gone,” she said with a bit of wishful thinking. “I want to continue to study nursing.”

Prior to becoming a Soldier, MejiaPolanco attended Bronx Community College. While she is eager for some sense of normalcy, she unhesitatingly acknowledged that she stands ready to support her gaining National Guard unit in whatever capacity.

“This is an opportunity for me to put my training to use; to help my people and help my community,” she insisted.

Capt. Luke Serbousek, commander of Alpha Company where the trio was assigned during AIT, said returning to New York will not be easy for the Soldiers, but whatever the expectation, their training will serve as a foundation to support their gaining units.

“Unlike others, these Soldiers will likely arrive to their units in a mobilized status,” he said. “This is exactly the type of situation these soldiers have been rigorously training to support over the past six months. They will have live up to the 23rd Quartermaster Brigade's motto and truly be ‘Ready on Day One’ to support this unified fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.”