TAMPA, Fla., –
U.S. Air Force Captain Stephanie McIlwraith promised herself she would never return to Florida after her mother’s funeral in August of 2020. Earlier that year, just as the nation began to implement COVID-19 restrictions, McIlwraith’s mother was diagnosed with cancer.
“Unfortunately, I allowed my fear of getting her sick stop me from making the trip to see her before [her] passing,” said McIlwraith. “I left Florida in August after my mom’s funeral, and I vowed I was never coming back here.”
Nearly six months later, McIlwraith is currently deployed from her home station at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado to the state-led, federally supported community vaccination center here in Tampa, Florida.
“I was actually very upset when I found out we were coming here,” said McIlwraith, a clinical nurse who grew up nearby in Clearwater, Florida. “However, it has been a very rewarding experience.”
For McIlwraith, being deployed to help fight the virus that prevented her from seeing her mom one last time is only part of the reward. She also gets to help keep her other family members healthy and safe. Her extended family still lives in the area, and qualify for the COVID-19 vaccine, so McIlwraith was able to personally vaccinate her grandmother and aunt at the center.
“For my family, trying to get an appointment and not knowing how to get transportation was an issue,” said McIlwraith. “So, for them to come here and get the one shot, that was the easy option for them.”
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Linzie Avalos, an aerospace medic also deployed from Peterson AFB, says the experience here is nothing like she imagined. The 26-year-old is originally from Phoenix and studied criminal justice in college.
“I thought I could come in as a paralegal, but they didn’t need me for that,” said Avalos. “But [being a medic] was an option so, here I am. This is my first deployment, and I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s been extremely rewarding to be able to serve the community like this.”
Unlike Avalos, this isn’t U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jerrica Wild’s first deployment as a medic. She says she’s deployed several times overseas, including Afghanistan, but this type of deployment is a first for her.
“Whether deployed or at home station, I’m used to working in a hospital environment caring for other service members,” said Wild, also deployed from Peterson AFB. “To be able to help a community in need like this is something I can’t explain. “
Nearly 140 Airmen are deployed to Tampa to support the whole-of-government COVID-19 pandemic response. U.S. Army North, U.S. Northern Command's Joint Force Land Component Command, has overseen the Department of Defense's COVID-19 response operation in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services since March 2020.
Approximately 2,900 military medical and support personnel from the U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Forces are currently working, or will soon work, in 11 states and one territory as part of the federal vaccine response to the pandemic. To date, these military personnel have administered approximately 700,000 vaccines.
U.S. Northern Command, through U.S. Army North, remains committed to providing continued, flexible Department of Defense support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of the whole-of-government response to COVID-19.