Troops disinfecting nursing homes and aiding hospitals and food banks

Spc. Marquez Thomas joined the Georgia National Guard five years ago so he could better support his daughter Ariana, a first-grader fond of My Little Pony toys. A single father, Thomas, 30, expected to deploy overseas for war.

That hasn’t happened yet. Instead, he is fighting an invisible enemy, disinfecting Atlanta-area nursing homes amid the coronavirus pandemic. He pictures Ariana, 7, as he dons his Tyvek suit, mask and gloves outside of each senior care facility.

“I really don’t think about me,” the Stockbridge High School graduate said about his motivation. “I only think about my daughter and her wellbeing.”

Spc. Marquez Thomas joined the Georgia National Guard five years ago so he could better support his seven-year-old daughter, Ariana.
Spc. Marquez Thomas joined the Georgia National Guard five years ago so he could better support his seven-year-old daughter, Ariana.

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

A Georgia Army National Guardsman quietly wipes down a bed railing while trying not to awaken a resident at Legacy Transitional Care and Rehabilitation in Atlanta Sunday, April 19, 2020. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
A Georgia Army National Guardsman quietly wipes down a bed railing while trying not to awaken a resident at Legacy Transitional Care and Rehabilitation in Atlanta Sunday, April 19, 2020. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

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.

 A resident at the Campbell-Stone home for seniors in Sandy Springs cheers Georgia Army National Guardsmen as they prepare to disinfect her building Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
A resident at the Campbell-Stone home for seniors in Sandy Springs cheers Georgia Army National Guardsmen as they prepare to disinfect her building Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

"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.

Spc. Marquez Thomas, right, gives Spc. Willie Givens, left, two thumbs up, indicating he is ready to enter the Campbell-Stone home for seniors in Sandy Springs Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Spc. Marquez Thomas, right, gives Spc. Willie Givens, left, two thumbs up, indicating he is ready to enter the Campbell-Stone home for seniors in Sandy Springs Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

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.

First Lt. Cameron Shepherd, a graduate of Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy in McDonough: “We are not robots or anything. We are human beings. We care about our community.”
First Lt. Cameron Shepherd, a graduate of Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy in McDonough: “We are not robots or anything. We are human beings. We care about our community.”

“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.”

 Pfc. Cierra Williams, right, assists Dr. Stephen Smith in testing residents for COVID-19 at Legacy Transitional Care and Rehabilitation in Atlanta Sunday, April 19, 2020. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Pfc. Cierra Williams, right, assists Dr. Stephen Smith in testing residents for COVID-19 at Legacy Transitional Care and Rehabilitation in Atlanta Sunday, April 19, 2020. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

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.”

Spc. Maria Espriella: “Humanity is at a time right now where we all need to help each other... It is the virus versus the world.”
Spc. Maria Espriella: “Humanity is at a time right now where we all need to help each other... 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.”

Pfc. Cierra Williams, right, with Dr. Stephen Smith, collectiing samples from residents for COVID-19 testing at Legacy Transitional Care and Rehabilitation in Atlanta Sunday, April 19, 2020. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Pfc. Cierra Williams, right, with Dr. Stephen Smith, collectiing samples from residents for COVID-19 testing at Legacy Transitional Care and Rehabilitation in Atlanta Sunday, April 19, 2020. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

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.

Spc. Garrett Able: “This is not the war that we signed up for. It is one that we will gladly fight because it is for our community.”
Spc. Garrett Able: “This is not the war that we signed up for. It is one that we will gladly fight because it is for our community.”

"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.”

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