More than 1,200 service members from the Texas National Guard and the active and reserve components of the Army, Navy and Air Force have joined forces to support Texas hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With a request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Gov. Greg Abbot has secured a partnership between the Texas National Guard and U.S. Army North that will provide local hospitals with medical professionals from the U.S. Armed Forces.
Maj. Gen. Tracy R. Norris, the adjutant general of Texas, welcomed the additional health care providers that will be joining a Texas Military Department response that began in March.
“By partnering with the active-duty and reserve components, we will be able to provide this much-needed support and relief to the Texas civilian health care workers who have been working tirelessly to care for the people of our great state,” said Norris.
The Texas National Guard already shares a strong working relationship with U.S. Army North, she said. The San Antonio-based U.S. Army North also provides defense support of civil authorities in times of need.
Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson, commanding general of U.S. Army North (Fifth Army) and the Joint Force Land Component Command, will supply the federal forces positioned across the state.
The partnership in Texas marks the first time a major disaster response will be led by two female commanders.
Both leaders have spent months responding to the pandemic, with Norris focused on supporting operations throughout Texas and Richardson assisting with national missions.
Heading the effort on the ground will be Texas Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Thomas Suelzer. Appointed as the dual-status commander, Suelzer will provide direction to both Texas National Guard and federal service members. The nomination and approval of the dual-status commander streamlines the process, ensuring a smoother and more effective collaboration of state and federal resources.
Suelzer said under the dual status structure, the governor will continue leading the response with both state and federal military assets. Orders and guidance can simultaneously be received from the president.
“It is an incredible experience to work with our service members in this historic event. My position will allow for collaboration between orders directed by Governor Abbott and those by the president,” said Suelzer. “I am proud to see how effortlessly our forces have integrated with each other.”
Among the medical staff is Maj. Tanya Island, of the 147th Medical Group, Texas Air National Guard. Island is serving as the Joint Task Force Lone Star surgeon, positioning personnel and resources across the state.
Island represents what makes the Guard such a valuable tool for state response, leveraging both her civilian career as a nurse anesthetist and her military training to help her fellow Texans.
“This operation really opened my eyes as to how critical a role the National Guard has in this response,” said Island. “Since COVID-19 began, we have coordinated over 320,000 tests, and now we are standing up teams of medical professionals to backfill civilian hospitals.”
The first 12 teams will consist of 100 medical staff, including doctors, nurses, medics and health care administrators from the National Guard, active-duty forces and military reservists.
Current focus areas are Houston, San Antonio, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, the Rio Grande Valley, and the Texas Coastal Bend. Suelzer explained the mix of metropolitan and rural response areas highlight very different ways the Texas health system is strained.
Cities like Houston and San Antonio are dealing with large populations that increase the communicability of the virus, while rural areas including the Rio Grande Valley and the Texas Coastal Bend struggle to find medical providers in the sparsely populated region.
In addition to the medical personnel mission in support of COVID-19, Guard members across Texas continue to staff mobile testing sites and decontaminate critical facilities.
“Our Guardsmen continue to serve their neighbors and local communities months after activation,” said Norris. “I want every Soldier, Airman and their family members to know how much their dedication means to the people of Texas.