WASHINGTON -- Pfc. Yasmin Aguilar assisted the lines of seniors, health care workers, and medically vulnerable people last week, as they entered a COVID-19 community vaccination center just outside the United Center in Chicago.
Aguilar, a combat medic with less than two years in the Army, never considered that her time in service would place her on the front line of national and state-led vaccination efforts, she said.
Her unit, the 426th Brigade Support Battalion at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, is part of a 222-Soldier Type 1 team, helping to administer close to 6,000 vaccines per day at the center.
"I feel like [this mission] is making history," she said. "It feels pretty good to be part of something that is an effort to stop the pandemic."
Soldiers with the 426th BSB are slated to support vaccine efforts every day for the next eight weeks.
The Chicago site is one of four identical ones being helped by the Army in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Army is scheduled to assist in seven states and one territory at 18 community vaccination centers, of which four are the Type 1 facilities. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps will also provide support in seven states and one territory.
Joining the Army
Originally from Manteca, California, Aguilar was in high school when she first considered an Army career.
"I was in class when the recruiters came in," she said on Friday. "They made it sound interesting as they talked about all the different programs. I figured I would give it a try."
Significantly influenced by TV shows like Grey's Anatomy, Aguilar set her sights on becoming a physician assistant, she said. She hopes her career experience and educational benefits will help her achieve her goal.
"I have always felt that I have worked well with other people," Aguilar said. "I also find it interesting how medicine impacts the body or how we develop. The medical field brings all those things together."
After basic military training, Aguilar found herself at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for advanced individual training.
"I joined to serve my country and take advantage of all the opportunities that the Army could provide," she said. "The 68W (military occupational specialty) was the only medical career field that the Army offered me, and I thought it was the best fit."
A few weeks before her graduation, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country in early March.
The virus initially forced the Army to restrict all travel to and from the training location, as the Army Medical Center of Excellence and Army Training and Doctrine Command implemented an array of COVID-19 mitigation measures to keep the training pipeline open, MEDCoE officials said.
Aguilar recalled the hours of instruction she received about the spread of infectious diseases, she said.
Training typically includes hands-on instruction on infection control and disease transmission practices to help reduce the spread of a virus, prevent exposure, and to take action if an exposure occurs, combat medic training officials have said. Soldiers are also educated on personal protective equipment, immunization training, and methods of control to remove potential infectious disease hazards or pathogens.
As proper safety precautions were put in place, Aguilar was one of many Soldiers to depart the training site after travel restrictions lifted in early April. According to MEDCoE officials, over 10,000 AIT graduates who completed medical training and education made it to their next duty station from April through February.
"They had to change our training so that we can meet the requirements," she said. "I feel like I've learned enough to apply it to the mission," supporting the vaccine operations.
As operations continue in Chicago, Aguilar said she has one goal -– vaccinate as many people as possible. Encouraging people to build immunity to the virus is a step in the right direction.
"The most common reaction I get from people is relief," she said. "A lot of people discuss how they are not able to get the vaccine anywhere, and this was the first place they could schedule an appointment.
"Honestly, they are all super happy and excited to get the vaccine," she added.
As she administers shot after shot, Aguilar sometimes thinks about her parents and siblings back home, including her younger sister in the Navy stationed in Japan.
She hopes that more resources will be made available soon, so that her remaining family can be vaccinated quickly, she said.
"I feel like if I just went straight to college, I wouldn't have had such an opportunity to get out there and help my community," she said. "I feel honored to be a part of this."