NEW YORK — Two sets of identical twins are among the nearly 6,400 troops who have participated in the New York National Guard's COVID response mission that began in March 2020 and is now winding down.
New York Army National Guard Spcs. Armani and Artez Wilkins, both infantrymen assigned to the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, and Pfcs. Jiralmi and Gizelle Lugo, members of the 369th Sustainment Brigade, served together to support New York’s COVID 19 response.
Working on the pandemic response mission has brought them closer together and broadened their military experience, both sets of twins said.
The Wilkins, who both live in Bay Shore, went on duty together in March 2020 as the New York National Guard was assisting in the response to the emerging pandemic. The mission focused on containing a COVID-19 outbreak in the city of New Rochelle, north of New York City.
The Wilkins, age 27, were assigned to missions cleaning the New Rochelle City Hall and local schools, back when scientists thought the virus could be transmitted by surface contact. Later, the two were assigned to a COVID-19 drive-through test site at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. They worked as drivers for their team and assisted in guiding people through the testing process.
"One of the things that I learned was understanding how people understand you," Armani said. "There were language barriers that sometimes made communications more difficult. But we found ways to put people at ease while keeping the process moving."
"I learned a lot about caring for other people from my fellow team members and my daily interaction with the public," Artez said.
Unfortunately, they also both contracted COVID-19. Artez had a few symptoms, but the virus hit his brother harder. "I couldn't walk or breathe well for a couple of weeks, and my memory also felt foggy for about the same duration," Armani Wilkins recalled.
Both recovered and went back on duty, although were assigned to different missions. Artez kept working at the Stony Brook test site, while Armani was assigned to the massive vaccination site at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan.
The Lugo sisters joined the New York Army National Guard in February 2020, the month before the Wilkins went on COVID-19 duty. The 19-year-olds from Queens enlisted to serve as human resource specialists. They also tend to answer questions at the same time with the same words.
"It was a joint decision to pick the same MOS," the two said. "Training together gave us both the confidence we needed to succeed," Giselle Lugo said. A year later, they returned from training and volunteered for the COVID-19 mission. In March 2021, they both began working at the Javits vaccination center.
Staffed by 620 members of the New York Army and Air National Guard, the New York Naval Militia, and the New York Guard — the state's volunteer defense force — the vaccination site at the convention center is the largest in New York. More than 650,000 vaccinations have been administered at the site.
Initially, the two sisters worked in different sections. Jiralmi Lugo worked in the personnel section, while Giselle Lugo worked in the intelligence section. Now, though, they are both working in the personnel office.
"Having my sister by my side during AIT [advanced individual training] and now working together with her on the mission has been a great comfort," Giselle said. Being in different sections for a while was also a good thing, the two agreed. "Not being with my sister all the time and working in different sections taught me to be independent," Giselle added.