Sgt. Justin Rupp, NCOIC of Inpatient Ward 7 North at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, checks on supplies. Rupp and his team converted the ward for COVID-19 treatment in 12 hours.
Sgt. Justin Rupp, NCOIC of Inpatient Ward 7 North at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, checks on supplies. Rupp and his team converted the ward for COVID-19 treatment in 12 hours. (Photo Credit: Paul Lara) VIEW ORIGINAL

“Some would say I’m a little ‘old-school’ Army,” said Sgt. Justin Rupp, sitting in a conference room at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital last week. His young looks don’t give any hint of ‘old school,’ but his supervisors and mentors said this NCOIC has a hand in every aspect of the operations at 7 North.

When the pandemic’s wave was heading toward Virginia, hospital leadership called on Rupp to radically transform the unit.

“The military says ‘do more with less’ and then a pandemic happens, and you realize less is not more,” said Rupp. “A lot of hospitals don’t have infection-control units. This hospital didn’t have an infection-control unit. So, in 12 hours, we turned 7 North, a cardiac unit, into a COVID unit, and even before we were completed, we were admitting COVID patients. It was incredible. My staff handled it better than I thought they would. We haven’t had a single transmission … yet,” Rupp said, knocking on the wooden conference table.

Rupp said COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, hasn’t hit Servicemembers as hard as the general population, since they are healthier. “We force them to be healthier. We always say ‘it’s part of your job to work out, so figure out your time, because I’m paying you for it.’”

Rupp said many people are shocked to hear he’s not a combat combat medic specialist, but a licensed practical nurse.

“The Army has transitioned many times, throughout the years, to Whiskey, and the Army came up with these licensed practical nurses,” he said. “So, once you’re a whiskey, and you knew your craft, then you move to a licensed practical nurse,” he said, noting the Army ended that transition, and now they are two separate specialties.

Nursing challenges

“A lot falls on nursing – perhaps too much. Nursing is not linens. It’s not IT. It’s not maintenance of the equipment or supplies. It’s not all the ancillary things. but then all these things fall on nursing, and we have to be good at it, because that’s where the boots hit the pavement. In a nutshell, nursing is customer care.

“Customer service can make or break an industry, all around. I think nursing care gets so much dumped on them that they’re burning out, like teachers and frontline Soldiers and Sailors, because we put so much on their shoulders. Nurses are the customer service to patients and families.

“Nursing can be hard. I guarantee most of my people have back and knee problems, because they’re picking up a patient, or catching a patient if they start to fall, and it’s pretty physical work,” said Rupp.

Maj. Stacie Gibson, deputy chief of the hospital’s medical/surgical ICU, describes Rupp as someone who peers seek for support.

“He exemplifies what it means to be an NCO; the backbone of the Army,” said Gibson. “He’s there physically – constantly helping Soldiers, Sailors or anybody, to pass either physical tests that they need to do. He’s here on weekends, making sure that promotion boards paperwork and preparation is ready. He’ll come in nights, if he needs to counsel an individual or check on them, and he truly cares about what happens here, and that is something that makes him thrive,” she said.

Leadership risks

“An old boss told me ‘if you’re not ticking people off, you’re not doing the right thing.’ You’re not going to make everybody happy. Master Sergeant Long, (another LPN at Belvoir Hospital) told me ‘You’re doing great things, but you can ruffle feathers, and I told him the reason I ruffle feathers, is because I care,” Rupp said.

“As a leader, if you can’t stand up in front of people and give them the hard answers, then you probably shouldn’t be a leader, in the first place,” said Rupp, adding he tries not to lead by order, but by explaining why it’s important and explaining the bigger picture.

“He’s amazing. He really is more than just a sergeant in the Army,” said Alegra Halyard, the assistant officer in charge on 7 North. “He really is an extension of the organization of the unit. He takes the values and the care very seriously and he extends that to the patients and the staff.”

“I always tell him that he’ll be sergeant major of the Army, one day. There’s just no doubt about that, to me,” Halyard said with a smile.

This story originally ran in the Belvoir Eagle on June 10, 2020.