RICHMOND, Virginia — Nearly 200 Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are concluding more than three months of continuous sample collection and other missions in support of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s COVID-19 response efforts. The Soldiers and Airman are assigned to the Richmond-based 34th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosives Enhanced Response Force Package, which was activated after the Governor of Virginia’s emergency declaration earlier in 2020.
“The men and women of the 34th CERFP served on the front edge in support of our Commonwealth and Nation’s fight to end the global COVID-19 pandemic,” said Brig. Gen. James W. Ring, Director of the Virginia National Guard Joint Staff. “They epitomize the service of the Citizen-Soldier and answered the call at a time of national need. Their exceptional service in conducting over 100,000 COVID tests set the conditions to reduce the effects of this pandemic within our communities and protected the lives of the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
The VNG is concluding all federally-funded COVID-19 support operations at the end of July, Ring said. Governor Ralph Northam requested an extension of federal funding, and continued use of the National Guard is pending Presidential approval.
Starting in April, the 34th CERFP led VNG’s sample collection missions across Virginia. The vast majority of these missions were point prevalence surveys conducted room by room at long-term and specialized care facilities throughout the state. In total, Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen collected more than 105,000 samples for COVID-19 testing, with more than 101,000 of those samples collected by PPS strike teams.
“I think this was a great mission for the CERFP. We were able to use a lot of our capabilities to fight the coronavirus,” said Lt. Col. Richard L. Harrison, commander of the 34th CERFP. “What amazed me the most was we ended up initially mobilizing about 120 Soldiers and Airmen to conduct the mission. At that time we really didn’t know how we were going to do it, we didn’t know specifically what our role was going to be. We were able to channel all of our resources towards testing. We learned how to do this very effectively, and each time, we got better.”
Each strike team was comprised of four PPS teams, each with three personnel, who received rigorous medical training on proper sample taking, sample handling and sanitation. Those teams went through residential long-term care facilities room by room to conduct a large number of tests quickly and safely. The PPS teams were supported by a command and control element and a decontamination element, a part of the process every bit as important as the actual sample taking.
“On that back end of the strike team we have Soldiers and Airmen providing decontamination, to make sure we’re not bringing COVID out of the facility and potentially contaminating ourselves or the next facility,” explained Maj. Andrew J. Czaplicki, the 34th CERFP’s deputy commander.
Additional community-based testing was conducted by the Fort Pickett-based 34th Civil Support Team and a strike team provided by Virginia Army National Guard’s Task Force Resolute. The 34th CST is continuing limited sample collection missions as the 34th CERFP ends operations.
Members of the CERFP had to learn on the fly to conduct the sample collection missions, something they had not trained specifically for before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was really impressed by how well our task force was able to stand up and get out on the missions, and how flexible everyone has been,” said Virginia Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Heather Pedraza. “This isn’t our typical mission, so being able to adapt to those changes – I was really impressed.”
As the mission came into definition, the CERFP grew to about 190 personnel and formed an addition four PPS strike teams which deployed to long term care and other facilities throughout the state. They efficiently conducted sample collections while following strict measures to protect the safety of patients as well as themselves.
Part of what helped the team come together and successfully transform into an efficient COVID-19 sample collection operation was a trust in each other and a solid foundation of teamwork.
“When we’re training, when we have our lanes set up, it’s every element for themselves, because everyone has their job to do,” explained Spc. Daniel Moore, part of the CERFP’s decontamination element. “Medical’s tents are different from decon’s side, and decon is different from search and extraction. As soon as this mission started, it helped with cohesion. Everyone wants to keep learning.”
Part of that teamwork includes the cohesion of Army and Air elements within the CERFP, working in unison to complete their tasks and missions successfully.
“It’s been a huge learning curve for me because this has been the most like a joint mission for me, working with Army and Air,” said Harrison. “You’ve got the Army mentality of how to do things and the Air mentality. When you bring those two minds together, it’s a force multiplier. It allows you to think smarter.”
“Overall I’m impressed by the whole mission, but especially the camaraderie that came about,” agreed Pedraza. “It’s two very different forces. We work together under normal CERFP operations, but it was really cool to see it actually in action, the way everyone got along as if we were in the same uniform.”
Harrison gave the credit for the teamwork and success of the missions to leadership of the individual strike teams.
“The teams were leading from the front. They took the initiative and did the right things, they did what they were supposed to do, and they ended up leading their teams from the front,” said Harrison. “The decentralized leadership worked really well with this mission. That’s something I’d continue to do.”
The COVID response mission gave the members of the CERFP unique real-world experience that can’t be replicated by standard training.
“Actually being able to do the mission is really rewarding,” said Moore. “A lot of people are just training once a year or twice a year, and you don’t get the fulfillment out of it. It’s like a deployment – you can prepare all day, but you’ll never have that experience until you get to go into the field and do it.”
Harrison said he’s proud of the way his Soldiers and Airmen conducted themselves during the COVID-19 mission, and knows it’s an experience they can be proud of.
“They conduced over 100,000 tests over close to 400 missions. They drove approximately 137,000 miles through the Commonwealth of Virginia. They have impressed me every day, because they were always willing to help,” Harrison said of his Soldiers and Airmen. “They will not walk away from this mission disappointed. They will walk away saying ‘I was involved in the COVID-19 response 2020. I made a difference. I ended up ensuring the safety of not only Soldiers and Airmen, but also citizens of the Commonwealth’.”
The importance of serving the citizens of Virginia wasn’t lost on the CERFP team members.
“The highlight for me is how rewarding it feels, to go to these facilities and to see how much everyone appreciates what we’re doing,” said Moore. “Some people might not see it as much, but when the people you’re helping say ‘thank you,’ it’s a pretty good feeling.”
“There were a lot of really grateful people,” echoed Pedraza. “We’re always there for them, we’re there to help them as a task force. It is our responsibility to stand up when things like this happen. It just goes to show that our military – we’re always ready.”
The CERFP is capable of providing support to first responders and civilian authorities after a chemical, biological or nuclear incident. The team includes both Army and Air National Guard units from Richmond, Petersburg, West Point, Rocky Mount and Langley Air Force Base, as well as Airmen from the Washington, D.C. National Guard. The team is capable of conducting tasks including consequence management, incident site communications, urban search and rescue, mass causality decontamination, technical decontamination, medical triage and stabilization and human remains recovery.
The CERFP is unique in that it is a task force that includes elements from multiple different units rather than one specific unit:
- Soldiers and Airmen assigned to the Richmond-based Joint Force Headquarters – Virginia provide command and control and incident management.
- Soldiers assigned to the Rocky Mount-based 229th Chemical Company serve as a mass casualty decontamination element.
- Soldiers from the West Point-based 237th Engineer Company operate as the search and extraction element.
- Airmen assigned to the 192nd Medical Group stationed at Langley Air Force Base provide the mass casualty medical triage and treatment element.
- Airmen assigned to the 192nd Cyber Operations Squadron at Langley Air Force Based provide communications capability using the Joint Incident Site Communications Capability, or JISCC.
- Airmen assigned to the Washington, D.C. National Guard’s 113th Force Support Squadron operate as a fatality search and recovery team.
During incidents requiring CERFP support, Soldiers and Airmen are alerted through the Virginia National Guard’s Joint Operations Center and mobilized on state active duty. If the incident is located within Virginia they would proceed to the incident site and fall under the control of the incident commander. If the incident is located outside of Virginia, Joint Force Headquarters – Virginia would coordinate with the receiving state under the terms agreed to in the Emergency Mutual Aid Compact.
Virginia’s 34th CERFP was authorized in June 2006. There are currently 27 CERFP teams available nationwide with three in FEMA Region 3 in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia.