SALT LAKE CITY – Documenting the U.S. Army’s response to the COVID-19 global pandemic has been the mission of military historians from the 88th Readiness Division for the past year, and is scheduled to continue through the end of 2021.
The 90th Military History Detachment, based out of Douglas Army Reserve Center here, has been interviewing the response participants, collecting documents and imagery since April 2020 via in-person meetings, telephone calls and Microsoft Teams-based video conference interviews from their workspace here as well as at home to provide the details to the Center of Military History.
“Our original mission was to, in real time, collect the history through interviews, documents, photographs and, if applicable, artifacts. Information on how the Army was responding to COVID 19 and what was being provided,” said Maj. Bettina Schmid, the former officer in charge of the 90th MHD. “In short order we recognized that there were other units at Fort Douglas that we could also gather meaningful historical data on. The 807th (Medical Command (Deployment Support)) headquarters is there at Fort Douglas as well and the EPLO (Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer) mission, they also have their headquarters at Fort Douglas.”
With that, the 90th MHD was able to expand its scope to include additional units and elements of the COVID response mission.
“I think this job has really given me a very front-line perspective to people who are actually dealing with it and seeing the impact that it actually has and how dangerous it can be,” said Sgt. Sami Abdelaziz, a military historian with the 90th MHD. “Some of our interviews are pretty intense in terms of what they dealt with or saw. It really kind of put it into perspective how serious COVID is.”
There have been ups and downs throughout the past year, with COVID directly impacting the team members, Schmid said.
“Not only were we covering the Army response to COVID 19 for our nation, but I was exposed to COVID and I did have some of the symptoms,” she said. “It did create a disruption for us. Once one team member was identified as being COVID positive, all of us had to quarantine and get tested. It slowed down our operations a bit, but then we did get back on our feet.”
For others, the COVID impact was longer lasting.
“It just laid me out,” said Sgt. Kevin Kiffen, the senior enlisted leader for the 90th MHD. “I went from happily working 8- to 10- sometimes 12-hour days to I was able to work maybe 2 to 3 hours a day just from the amount of energy it took out of me from COVID.”
That disruption to the work schedule had an impact, but Kiffen said the 90th MHD team helped him get through it and get back to the mission.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better group with that,” he said. They’ve been very understanding and they’re not at all pushy to get me to do stuff if I can’t do it.”
As the response to COVID continued to evolve, so too did the 90th MDH’s actions. They went from working out of the offices at Fort Douglas to working out of their homes.
“It’s nice to come home at night to your family, but at the same time, because the mission is so demanding and it was so many hours, sometimes it’s almost easier if you’re deployed to another location where you’re 100 percent focused on that,” Schmid said. “Even coming home at night I was still popping open my computer, making phone calls, writing reports. Trying to have that professional and personal balance, this mission was very demanding all the way through. You may be coming home at night but your mind is still on the mission a lot.”
In September, Schmid’s role as the officer in charge for the 90th MHD would change hands to Capt. Melissa Powers for Schmid to take a liaison role with the Center of Military History to assist future teams when they deploy.
“It was kind of bittersweet leaving my team, but I knew I was leaving them in good hands and I took the knowledge that I have and carried it forward,” Schmid said.
The transition during an active mobilization was unique, but smooth.
“It was definitely interesting for me because it was my first time being mobilized,” Powers said. “Major Schmid has been so helpful with the transition because it was definitely a big change for me going from my previous position in the combat support hospital to being an OIC. But, she had everything already laid out so it was easier for me to kind of step into that role and just tweak things for my own leadership style.”
As COVID restrictions loosened, the 90th MHD team was able to travel to the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and observe and document the COVID response there in February 2021.
“They got hit really, really hard at the beginning of the pandemic,” Powers said. “We were able to go into the hospitals and see how they had made changes to the hospital to better serve their COVID patients. They had split their ER into three different sections. Seeing how they were able to compromise and get things that they needed.”
Being able to travel to more areas and document first hand is something the team members are excited about as this deployment continues.
“We’ve found that if you’re not physically located wherever you’re collecting, it’s hard sometimes to collect and really make those connections,” Powers said. “It’s really valuable to see those faces, even in COVID times.”
“I think it doesn’t change the interview entirely,” Abdelaziz said of conducting interviews over the telephone or videoconference. “We don’t really get that time before and after to get to know the person to break that ice. You might not get as candid of an interview.”
As the team begins its second year of documenting the COVID-19 response, Kiffen reflected on what the enduring feeling he has from the first year.
“The biggest highlight for me is how willing the Army and the individuals in the Army were to change everything they do and how they do it,” he said. “There wasn’t any hesitation, there wasn’t any real push back. Once COVID came in, everybody just said OK it’s changed, and went for it. It’s heartening to know that the American military has that ability to adapt in any circumstance. It doesn’t matter what it is.”