The motto of the National Guard—“Always Ready, Always There”—aptly captured the esprit de corps of the Illinois National Guard members who recently faced an adversary—invisible to the naked eye—unlike any others they had encountered in former missions. This past March, Governor J. B. Pritzker activated the Illinois National Guard in an historic effort: to establish the first State of Illinois drive-thru community-based testing site (CBTS) in Chicago in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lieutenant Colonel Brian C. Gahan (M.A.S. CHE ’02) oversaw the operation.
“I expected the call. The possibility of state activation had already been discussed, and there were prior calls requesting volunteers if needed,” explains Gahan, who joined the Illinois Air National Guard in 2006 and is now commander of the 182nd Medical Group, Detachment 1, serving out of Peoria, Illinois. “The process for activating members provided enough early warning that we are able to prepare ourselves. This activation was different in that medical personnel were targeted to be first out the door.”
Gahan visited the work site—a former Illinois vehicle-emissions testing facility and storage area—in Chicago’s Harwood Heights neighborhood on March 19 and on March 23, the CBTS began serving its first clients at 9 a.m. The physical setup was carried out by the Illinois Army National Guard’s 5th Civil Support Team, while Gahan’s group focused on how to best conduct a smooth operation that once set in motion, could stay in motion for an extended period and be replicated at other sites.
The CBTS initially opened its doors to symptomatic health care workers, first responders, individuals over age 65, and individuals with underlying health conditions, but by early June, offered testing to everyone. The quality of service and eagerness to, as Gahan describes, “stand up for those who could not stand up for themselves” by the Illinois National Guard team was a personal high point of the COVID-19 mission. With the operation’s singular aspect came unique obstacles.
“This was a challenging mission that presented a repetitive schedule, the risk of exposure and contracting disease, separation from family and friends, and the difficulty of adjusting to continual change,” Gahan says about his team, which is trained to respond to significant domestic emergencies that may occur in various contaminated environments, from chemical to nuclear to high-yield explosives. “Even though we learned how to operate in this environment, everyone handled it in their own way. What I observed were elements of ownership and leadership championed by many of our members throughout the mission. It was an amazing thing. The team became its own living entity that provided support from within, and never allowed a challenge to go unaddressed.”
This overall excellence in leadership and service led Gahan to a U.S. Air Force commission in 2006. While his civilian career follows the energy sector, Gahan served full time in the U.S. Air Force for the past six years under the Office of the Inspector General. His inspiration to join was sparked after participating in a Civilian Orientation Cruise aboard the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier in 2000. The encounter presented the coordinated teamwork of the ship’s crew—5,000 members strong with an average age of 19. Many of those who served together to combat the coronavirus under Gahan’s leadership were not much older.
“People make the mission, and many times, the mission makes the people. We experienced a member, hospitalized and nearly taken by the disease, who fought back to recover, and get back on the line to help others. We overcame the daily assembly line of repetition that desensitized your awareness and orientation,” says Gahan. “There were community members that continually brought food and encouragement to the team, and gave us all inspiration to keep up our best fight. There were members of local and state first responders that treated us as their own. But in the end, the special story was the people, the team, the family. Although we conducted our training as military and civilian responders, we immediately shared the purpose of our calling.”
[Top Photo] An Illinois Army National Guard member assists a patient at the State of Illinois Harwood Heights Community-Based Testing Site
Photos courtesy of the Illinois National Guard