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News | June 24, 2021

ARNORTH ends COVID-19 vaccination mission, leaders look back on effort

By Thomas Brading Army News Service

With more than 5 million vaccinations administered, the Army has concluded its COVID-19 support mission, which found Soldiers helping others and building trust within some of the nation’s hardest-hit communities, Army leaders recently said.

At the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, U.S. Army North, the U.S. Northern Command's Joint Force Land Component Command, completed its COVID-19 vaccination response June 22 after medical personnel departed the New Jersey Institute of Technology Naimoli Family Recreational Facility in Newark.

“We end our COVID-19 support mission, where it began, in the Northeast,” said Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson, ARNORTH and JFLCC commander, in a news release. “As demand for federal military support for pandemic response declines, so too can our presence as we reset for potential, future all-hazards response and homeland defense missions directed by the Department of Defense.”

In February, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin called on active-duty troops to assist with federal vaccination efforts. Since then, ARNORTH has led more than 5,100 military medical and support personnel across the DOD to 25 states and one territory as part of the overall government response to the pandemic, the release said.

The withdrawal comes following months of vaccine distribution, and in addition to helping communities, it has given Soldiers an insight into how to prepare for future responses regarding hazards and homeland defense, said Lt. Col. Andrew L. Olson, the 299th Brigade Engineer Battalion commander, who spent roughly 60 days in East Los Angeles during a vaccine distribution mission.

There, roughly 500 service members worked from sun up to sundown, including members of the California National Guard and 220 Soldiers from the engineer battalion, which falls under 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.

Troops administered roughly 6,000 vaccinations a day at California State University on the Los Angeles campus. By April, they administered more than 300,000 vaccinations over a 60-day period.

Olson, who has served 20 years in the Army, and his family are no strangers to short notice missions, like the one to Los Angeles. When he got word of the response mission, his wife replied, “OK, we’ll see you later,” in a connotation that suggested to “expect the unexpected,” he said.

With less than a week to prepare, “the immediate concerns the sergeant major and I was how it can impact the training plans we’ve got the next few months and things like that,” he told reporters Wednesday during an Army Current Operations Engagement Tour.

Once that was out of the way, the first objective was building the right team. To start, they identified which Soldiers wanted to go. Many California natives were already within their ranks, eager to give back to their community, Olson said.

“I think that was great because it came through in the way the Soldiers performed on the ground,” he said, regarding the California natives on the mission.

Once they were on the ground, a combination of nurses, pharmacy technicians, and one pharmacist were dropped in to round out the team, which bridged the gap for Soldiers unqualified to administer vaccines but who still served in other capacities, he said.

Every day during the mission, leaders observed Soldiers display compassion by going out of their way by giving extra attention to those who were emotionally distressed or mobility impaired, Olson said.

It was going the extra mile that proved to be a testament to their professionalism, and helped “connect and comfort those who were having a hard time for whatever reason,” the commander added. “I was just taken back by it.”

In addition, many California locals left vaccination sites surprised “Army people could be so nice,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Nathaniel Atkinson Jr., the battalion’s senior enlisted leader. “To me, that was a validation of building trust in the community.”

From the outset of the COVID-19 response, over 10,000 active-duty service members have gone to hospitals across the country, where they have worked alongside civil authorities and medical professionals on the front lines of the pandemic effort.

During this time, ARNORTH was in constant coordination with FEMA, as well as state and local officials to meet the National Preparedness Goal, he said.

The campus location was co-operated by FEMA and the State of California through the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. However, once the Army and other federal agencies left, the city of Los Angeles claimed control of the location.

“I am incredibly proud of all the active-duty service members deployed under United States Northern Command who have contributed so much in the fight against COVID-19,” said Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and USNORTHCOM.

“Through every challenge faced during this pandemic, we have worked alongside and supported the civil authorities and amazing medical professionals across our country who have been on the front lines of this effort,” the general added in a news release.

Although Olson said he hopes no other pandemics sweep the nation, acquiring the experience and serving others were both critical to Army preparedness, whether in East Los Angeles or the other side of the globe, he said.

“This has been a unique chance to serve the American people directly,” Olson said. “I think it’s a matter of just sharing the message that we stand ready to answer the nation’s call, whether that’s defense support to civil authorities here in the homeland or whether that’s abroad.”