No pulse-pounding military ad ever showed a gowned-up soldier in uniform jamming a cotton swab up someone’s nose.
Yet for National Guard soldiers and airmen in the Midlands, and across the country, nose-swabbing is one of many unexpected duties they’re performing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nationwide, more than 47,000 National Guard members have been called up for federal or state service to aid with the medical response, including more than 600 in Nebraska and 900 in Iowa.
Across the two states, Guard soldiers and airmen have set up and staffed coronavirus testing sites, delivered medical supplies to hard-hit counties, ferried test samples to laboratories and boxed up supplies for food banks.
“You don’t always hear about this in ‘Be All You Can Be,’ ” said Nebraska National Guard Lt. Col. Chuck McWilliams, recent head of the state’s pandemic response team, referring to the Army’s popular recruiting slogan of the 1980s and ’90s.
In both states, the Guard response is the largest for a civil emergency in years, larger even than for the massive floods of 2019.
“We have a ready pool of manpower,” said Col. Michael Wunn, an Iowa National Guard spokesman. “This shows the value and versatility of the National Guard.”
The Nebraska National Guard’s involvement began Feb. 5, when 57 Americans who had just been evacuated from Wuhan, China — the pandemic’s ground zero — were brought for quarantine to Camp Ashland, a remote training camp on the Platte River 30 miles southwest of Omaha.
McWilliams, a meteorologist in civilian life who formerly worked for KETV Channel 7, stood up Joint Task Force Heartland Response in early April.
The task force’s most visible presence has been the six mobile testing teams that have deployed around the state to collect test samples and bring them to central laboratories.
The first was April 5 in Kearney, where 162 people were tested. They have visited numerous sites since then, supporting local health districts as well as the state’s TestNebraska initiative.
McWilliams said Guard members set up the sites, usually in parking lots, conduct traffic control and check off the citizens who drive up for tests. In some cases, they actually gather the samples with swabs. Those are the soldiers or airmen in gowns and masks.
“We have folks that are either doctors or nurses in their civilian capacities, or (National Guard) medics,” he said.
The garb isn’t necessarily as strange as it may seem for many of the Guard members. McWilliams is a chemical officer, and many of his activated soldiers have been trained to deal with toxic substances.
“They have experienced being in (hazardous materials) suits,” he said. “There’s an element of decontamination in what we do.”
Through Thursday, the National Guard teams had gathered just over 40,000 COVID-19 tests at 100 testing locations — 43% of the total collected in the state.
On April 12, soldiers began delivering masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and other personal protective equipment all over Nebraska. They have driven more than 150,000 road miles so far to deliver more than 6 million items.
And on April 21, 69 Guard members began working with food banks in Omaha and Lincoln to pack boxes and deliver food. Since then, the effort has been ramped up. To date, 350,000 pounds of food has been provided.
The Lincoln-based 155th Air Refueling Wing supported air flow tests aboard several types of Air Force transports — including one of its own KC-135 tankers — at the Lincoln Airport. The U.S. Transportation Command and University of Nebraska scientists conducted the experiments to see which planes would be best to use if a planeload of people needed to be evacuated from a virus hot spot.
During the May 12 primary election, 134 Guard volunteers helped out as poll workers across Nebraska.
“We are doing things we didn’t expect to be doing,” said Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, the state’s adjutant general.
The same is true across the river in Iowa.
There, pandemic support began with nine National Guard soldiers who were activated by March 20 to support the state’s emergency operations center in Johnston.
Three days later, eight soldiers set up a pair of tents for medical use in Oskaloosa. And on March 24, members of the 1133rd Transportation Company delivered four semitrailer truckloads of medical supplies to five counties across the state, including Pottawattamie.
That mission quickly expanded. Before month’s end, 120 soldiers had been activated, including military police and headquarters support. Guard trucks had delivered supplies to 75 of 99 counties.
At the beginning of April, Iowa Guard members set up headquarters sites for three regional pandemic task forces, in Sioux City, Johnston and Iowa City. All are still operating.
As the total call-up has passed 900, Iowa Guard members have set up drive-in testing sites similar to their Nebraska counterparts. About 150 are involved in “COVID mapping” — staffing call centers to trace the contacts of Iowans who test positive for the coronavirus.
The mission to deliver food to food banks has mushroomed as well.
“The need has increased exponentially as people have lost their jobs,” Wunn said.
The Iowa National Guard’s largest civil defense call-up since the Cedar Rapids floods of 2008 is more than matched by the state’s biggest overseas deployment in a decade. About 2,000 soldiers are expected to be deployed by early 2021, Wunn said.
Families will say goodbye to 850 of them from the 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment, and the 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment in ceremonies Saturday and Monday at seven cities across the state.
Members of these units are headed to several locations in the Middle East and Africa, Wunn said.
Traditional send-offs, with snacks and balloons and hugs and kisses, are being limited because of pandemic-related restrictions on mass gatherings. Instead, the seven ceremonies will be livestreamed over the units’ Facebook pages.
In addition, about 400 Guard members are scheduled to deploy for a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo later this summer.
Regular Army and National Guard troops have been rotating through the former Yugoslav republic since a NATO air campaign in 1999 that blunted attacks by Serbs against ethnic Albanians.