Thomas is among more than 2,300 Georgia Guardsmen and other state officials serving on the tip of the spear in the fight against COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. In addition to disinfecting long-term care homes, they are testing patients for the disease, aiding busy hospitals and assisting food banks.
Wielding sprayers full of disinfectant, Guardsmen from Thomas' unit recently filed into Legacy Transitional Care and Rehabilitation in Atlanta, where eight residents and three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. Working quietly so they would not wake the patients, they wiped down bed railings, windows and walls.
More: Death toll rises to 295 in Georgia's nursing homes, senior care centers
Two days later, they suited up and went to work inside Campbell-Stone, a home for older adults in Sandy Springs. Residents ventured out onto their balconies to wave and cheer them on. Smiling broadly, one woman clutched an American flag.
"By the reactions of the residents and the staff at the long-term care facilities — that is what tells me the work we are doing is so beneficial," said Capt. Ryan Schwartz, 44, who commands Thomas' Guard unit, the 138th Chemical Company.
The 138th pulls more than 100 troops from across the state and trains for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapon attacks. Georgians from other Guard units have volunteered to work alongside them in the nursing homes, said Schwartz, a California native and former policeman who deployed twice to Iraq.
None of the 138th troops have tested positive for COVID-19, Schwartz said. To shield their families from the highly contagious disease, some are staying in a hotel near Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta. A friend is taking care of Thomas’ daughter while he is on duty. He has not seen Ariana for weeks, so he calls her at least every other day.
“It’s really hard for her,” Thomas said, adding that his daughter tries to stay on the phone with him until she falls asleep.
Like Thomas, First Lt. Cameron Shepherd, 29, of Stockbridge, is helping protect Georgia’s nursing homes. The 138th’s executive officer, Shepherd is motivated by wanting to protect the Atlanta region where he grew up.
“We are not robots or anything. We are human beings,” said Shepherd, a graduate of Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy in McDonough. “We care about our community.”
Spc. Maria Espriella, 23, of Marietta serves in the same unit with Shepherd and Thomas. To help pay for college, she joined the Guard three years ago. She is now studying at Kennesaw State University, dreaming of becoming a psychologist or psychiatrist. She also enlisted to make her parents proud.
“Humanity is at a time right now where we all need to help each other,” said Espriella, who was born in Florida and is the daughter of Mexican immigrant farmworkers. “It is the virus versus the world.”
The South Cobb High School graduate recently disinfected an Atlanta-area nursing home where one of the residents is a veteran.
“He had a wall of placards from the United States Air Force,” she said. “I thanked him for his service. He thanked me for ours. Of course, we do it because this is where we chose to be.”
Some Guardsmen have been personally affected by the pandemic. Spc. Garrett Able, 30, of Cartersville has lost a great aunt to COVID-19. One of his cousins is battling the disease in intensive care and two other sick cousins have quarantined themselves at home. Able has helped disinfect long-term care homes from Marietta to Pelham.
"This is not the war that we signed up for," said Able, a former film student and TV commercial actor. "It is one that we will gladly fight because it is for our community."
Asked how he musters the courage to suit up and head into the nursing homes, Able said: “You just ask yourself, ‘Who else?’ We are it.”