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Women of the D.C. National Guard take the lead in COVID-19 response

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Erica Jaros
  • 715th Public Affairs Detachment
History has seen women stepping up to serve with the military for centuries and the COVID-19 pandemic has them taking the lead more than ever.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day (March 8) was “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, women across the world have been leading efforts in patient care and the return to normalcy. Dedicated medical professionals in the District of Columbia National Guard are putting the well-being of others first, in and out of uniform.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Telisha Johnson, chief nurse for the 113th Medical Group, D.C. Air National Guard, jumped at the call to coordinate with leadership and local organizations to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“First, I was deployed to the [D.C.] Department of Health to assist in planning an alternate care site … [and] figuring out the staffing situation were there a medical surge amongst the hospitals,” said Johnson. “When we got to the alternate care site, I was responsible for not only training personnel that would be coming there from MedStar [Health] but also I was going to be the operations chief for the alternative site.”

Being a leader in the medical field means determining where your time is best spent, so when the virus began its surge across the United States in March of 2020, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Karolyn Teufel, a physician with the 113th Wing, D.C. Air National Guard, had to make a tough decision.

“I was being asked to do both missions: patient care and contingency planning and testing sites,” Teufel said. “I was torn between contributing to that Guard mission, but also taking care of COVID patients at [my hospital]. D.C. got overwhelmed with COVID in April of 2020 and I just felt like I couldn't leave my coworkers at the hospital.”

Teufel withdrew from the military COVID mission and devoted her time entirely to patient care at her hospital through May before returning to assist the military with testing sites in the summer.

Recently, as the focus has turned more from testing to prevention, Johnson has been overseeing the distribution of COVID vaccinations for military personnel in the D.C. National Guard and members of other states supporting security missions in the District.

Given the unique challenge of COVID-19 - a virus that not only attacks the physical health of millions, but also the emotional and mental health of millions more - women are proving to be particularly well suited to caring for the holistic health and recovery of the world.

“The post-COVID world is a place where women will thrive because the experience of COVID, I think, allowed women to shine and prosper in that they were already natural multi-taskers,” said Teufel. “It required people to think outside the box … that's already something women were doing before COVID: trying to be creative in balancing careers and families.”

Women are standing out in every way during the pandemic and it’s causing others to take notice.

“One of the vaccine developers is a female. She's African American. It is just amazing to see that no matter where you come from you could be a powerhouse; a force to be reckoned with,” said Johnson. “I think seeing that is what is inspiring little girls across the country; inspiring women like me to keep on reaching.”

As the country continues to social distance and vaccinate, women are still balancing their other military roles. Teufel is preparing for a possible deployment as a critical care air transport physician which involves facilitating the transfer of service members who are injured or sick from a deployed zone.

Regardless of the roles women have, they are being looked to as leaders in all fields. Whether it’s in the military or public sector, more women are being recognized for their technical skills and leadership abilities.

“We’ve definitely seen more leadership roles earned by [women] than ever before across not only the military but across the United States,” said Johnson. “We’re pushing the boundaries, we’re breaking glass ceilings and doing everything we can to make sure that we have equal footing across this country, across the world. I see nothing but greatness in our future.”