National Guard members support Ouray County during pandemic
Their assignment came in the first week of April: head to Ouray to help the county with logistics and planning in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
There were few specifics in place when Army National Guard Capt. Daniel Vancil III and Air Force National Guard Tech Sgt. Sydney Krause arrived to support local officials.
“Initially, when we were told we were coming out here, our leadership said, ‘Hey, we don’t know what they’re going to have you guys doing, just be ready to help however you can,’” Vancil said.
In the two months since, they’ve helped implement the county’s Incident Action Plan, worked with the Unified Command team, developed plans for potential local outbreaks, and launched efforts to collect and monitor data on the virus.
Their roles “developed over time,” Public Health Director Tanner Kingery said. Now, the Guard members are functioning as the “data team,” crunching numbers and helping with planning based on the information. Vancil said they try to be a sounding board when talking through situations and changes.
Some of their work has been invisible, and will remain so unless there’s a local outbreak, like a plan for a mass testing site which won’t be used unless cases spike in the county. Other efforts are about making more information available to the public: They’ve created an online form for daily, voluntary symptom monitoring, something called the Cheq-In, intended to help predict an outbreak or conduct contact tracing in the event of positive cases. Vancil is working to turn the data into a dashboard anyone can view online, like other counties already have.
In working with local officials, “we try to offer the military point of view,” drawing on their training and focus on efficiency, Krause said.
She served in the Army as a nuclear, chemical, biological specialist before leaving to raise her daughter, and was in the Army National Guard before joining the Air Force’s 233rd Security Forces Squadron.
Vancil most recently spent five months assisting the commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a position he credits with helping him “prepare for coming here to understand local politics.”
“Military success is contingent nowadays on how well we work with intergovernmental agencies,” whether with international organizations or municipal governments in the county, said Krause, who has also served in Slovenia and Hungary.
They also rely on their experience as small-business owners, which gives them extra perspective when working through changes and plans with Kingery.
“We see both sides when we get activated,” Krause said. She, her brother and mother run a temporary job consulting company in Philadelphia, where she grew up, which helps place Southeast Asian immigrants in jobs.
Vancil, who studied astrophysics before becoming a Blackhawk Medevac helicopter pilot and then joining the 1158th Space Support Company, owns a drone consulting and services business. He works closely with local police and fire departments to use drone technology “We understand that struggle that all these business owners are going through right now,” he said.
The early days of their deployment were spent working 14-hour days in the county Public Health Agency office, which is still where they spend much of their time.
They occasionally grill outside at their hotel in addition to fmding what they can at grocery stores or at Family Dollar to make for themselves, since they don’t have access to a full kitchen.
The confines of the Stay at Home and Safer at Home restrictions aren’t unfamiliar, which they’ve also drawn on. “When we deploy, you have a place where you work, you have a place where you eat, and you have a bed,” Vancil said. “If that’s all you have, that’s all you have, and you get quite used to finding ways to entertain yourself”
While their opportunities to enjoy the county have been limited, “definitely there are worse places to be in the world right now,” Vancil said. “Fortunately, we got assigned to one of the most beautiful places in Colorado.”
After a brief trip home to Monument, Vancil brought back his mountain bike and fishing poles, which he hopes to use before he leaves Ouray.
Krause gets away from the office and hotel by running. She and a friend are planning to complete more than 3,500 combined miles by next Memorial Day, to match the number of Medal of Honor recipients.
She lives in Colorado Springs with her daughter and husband, who has also spent his career in the military, so they’re accustomed to lengthy separations. She initially joined the Army, and later the National Guard. She comes from a family of Cambodian refugees and said that inspired her to join the military. “I just wanted to serve a country that’s given me so she said.
Both fell in love with Colorado, they said, and found the opportunity in the military to stay here while serving.
Vancil will remain in Ouray until the end of June, when he’ll leave for training for an upcoming overseas deployment, while Krause will remain a few weeks longer.
“The hardest part about the whole thing is just the amount of time it’s taking to reassess the situation every time there’s a change and seeing what effects that change had, and then going to the next,” Vancil said.
When they’re out and about, people tend to ask questions about restrictions and reopenings, assuming they have insider knowledge, “like we’re psychics,” Krause said.
But they learn about the rules and changes coming down from the state orders alongside Kingery.
Unlike the Colorado Springs area, where people are accustomed to seeing National Guard members in the community, “Ouray County doesn’t have that connection,” Vancil said. That created some early suspicion about their assignment here, especially on Facebook, while others assumed they were here to support testing efforts in Telluride or for some sort of law enforcement purpose, which wasn’t the case.
Instead, they’ve been hunkered down in the agency’s Second Street office, making Zoom calls and working with county employees, taking on work that Kingery said he otherwise couldn’t do on his own with such a small department.
“They have high expectations of themselves. It’s easy for me to work with them, knowing what their expectations are,” Kingery said. “I don’t think we’d be this far along without them.”
Liz Teitz is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms and has chosen the Ouray County Plaindealer as a host newsroom. For more information please visit www.reportforamerica.org.