LANDSTUHL, Germany – In April, Military Treatment Facilities across the Department of Defense ramped up efforts to quickly inoculate as many eligible beneficiaries as possible who desired the COVID-19 vaccination. Overseas, the challenges of a contrasting health care system and limited resources drove Americans to MTFs, challenging the facilities to juggle everyday operations with the need for vaccinations.
At Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the hospital avoided bottlenecks when the vaccine became widely available with the aid of Soldiers from the 452nd Combat Support Hospital (CSH), 330th Medical Brigade, 807th Medical Command, U.S. Army Reserve, who augmented the hospital with 45 medical Soldiers as part of the reserve unit’s annual training obligations.
Throughout the month of May, Soldiers with the 452nd CSH amplified COVID-19 vaccine efforts around the Kaiserslautern Military Community, a community of nearly 60,000 Americans in and around Kaiserslautern, Germany, even assisting with youth COVID-19 inoculations once the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was made available, the only vaccine currently authorized for ages 12 and up. Although, initially aiming to assist with inoculations and return home, Soldiers returned to their home base of Milwaukee with a greater-than-expected experience.
“From vaccinations to surgeries, we were coming to help with the vaccinations but ended up helping in different areas,” explains U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Eldon Johnson, noncommissioned officer in charge, 452nd CSH.
In addition to nearly 2,000 vaccinations, the unit helped with dozens of surgical procedures, behavioral health operations, the hospital’s intensive care unit, pharmacy services, over a dozen couplets (mother-baby inpatients), and even participated in a hospital-wide mass casualty exercise.
Although the majority of the unit’s Soldiers come from all over Wisconsin and Minnesota, for this mission, the unit was augmented by Soldiers from across the country, from North Carolina to Utah.
While frontline workers at U.S. medical facilities are faced with anxiety, stress and burnout syndrome due to the effects of COVID-19 in their communities, exhaustion was also a concern for essential personnel overseas. Because most Soldiers of the 452nd FH work in civilian healthcare facilities when out of uniform, their presence was hailed at LRMC.
“We felt needed,” explains Johnson. “It was a joy for us to help out, for us to contribute, and get more people vaccinated.”
While the unit’s contributions were obvious throughout their deployment, Soldiers with the 452nd CSH also benefited from working at the largest U.S. hospital outside the U.S. which serves more than 205,000 beneficiaries from across three continents. While patient care may be normal for these Soldiers outside of uniform in civilian healthcare facilities, there was more to take away from this training opportunity.
“We got to see how an active duty [military treatment facility] functions,” explains U.S. Army Col. Ines Berger, commander, 452nd CSH. “To function and walk into [LRMC] and integrate, that's the learning piece and is highly valuable to [reserve-component Soldiers.]”
“Most of our Soldiers don't perform vaccinations back home because most are trauma nurses and in other specialties,” explains Johnson, a Milwaukee native. “We hit the ground running and proved the conception that we can bring resources and integrate on short notice, which was part of the mission.”
Aside from supporting LRMC operations, the deployment also tested the unit’s capability to deploy on short notice and interoperability, a key component of the U.S. Army’s Defender-Europe 21 exercise, a large-scale U.S. Army-led, multinational, joint exercise designed to build readiness and coordination between U.S., NATO and partner militaries.
According to Berger, a native of Greensboro, Georgia, working at LRMC also gave the Soldiers insight into upper echelons of military medical care, as most Soldiers in the unit have deployed in the role two, battalion aid stations, role two plus, forward surgical teams, or the role three, CSH, levels of care, who work to evacuate casualties to higher echelons of care, namely LRMC.
“We are the people sending patients to LRMC,” said Berger. “To see the Military Health System in action is a very broadening experience for the Soldiers. I remember we were deployed to Kuwait (in 2018-2019) and we medevaced Soldiers while out there. Now we know where they landed and how (LRMC) responds.”
Furthermore, units from the 452nd CSH have an interdependent relationship with LRMC through deployments spanning over two decades during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It's a phenomenal experience to see it firsthand. I'm very impressed the capabilities of (LRMC) to scale up and to down according to mission needs,” she adds.
For Berger, the deployment was a homecoming to her native country as she was born in Wolfsburg, Germany and received her Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy in the country before moving to the U.S. for a residency opportunity at the Mayo Clinic. After meeting her future husband during her residency program, Berger felt she needed to give back to the country for the opportunities she received.
“I joined the Army Reserves because the opportunities I had, moving to the U.S., the wonderful education I received, that I needed to give back to my country,” said Berger. “(Coming back to Germany) was an outstanding opportunity because I do have an unrestricted German license, and (COVID-19 vaccinations) for local nationals needed a German physician to sign the consent form.”
Landstuhl Regional Medical Center is the evacuation and treatment center for all injured U.S. Servicemembers and civilians, as well as members of 56 Coalition Forces serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, as well as Africa Command, Central Command and European Command.