Guard members answer call to duty to drive cruise passengers home

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Brig. Gen. Joane Mathews, Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general for Army, speaks to troops mobilizing for state active duty to transport 37 Wisconsin citizens who were aboard a cruise ship with confirmed cases of COVID-19 to their homes for self-quarantine once they arrive in Wisconsin. (Wisconsin National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Alex Baum)

MADISON, Wis. (WKBT) — Wisconsin National Guard members cited a call to duty they have trained for as their reason for volunteering to go on active duty to drive 37 Wisconsin residents home as they return from a cruise on a ship contaminated with coronavirus.

Although 19 crew members and two passengers on the Grand Princess tested positive for coronavirus, none of the returning Wisconsin residents tested positive for COVID-19, and all are asymptomatic. However, when they return to their homes they will be self-quarantined for 14 days as a precaution.

“It gives me a sense of fulfillment of what I enlisted for, which was to help the people of the state of Wisconsin,” said Cpl. Jose Perezvilla, a member of the Enhanced Response Force Package assigned to the 457th Chemical Company in Whitewater.

Noting that Guard members train continuously to be ready to respond at a moment’s notice, he said, “Now we actually get to put some of that into action and help the people of the state.”

Airman 1st Class Matthew Ascher, a medic assigned to the 115th Fighter Wing’s Medical Group in Madison, agreed, saying, “I know that a lot of my friends and family are … scared of this virus, and it means a lot to be able to help out.

“I love it,” Ascher said. “I jumped right on it as soon as they called me. I think it’s outstanding — just the amount of people that quickly volunteered” within just a few hours.

The ship, the Grand Princess, had carried more than 3,500 passengers and crew members on a 15-day cruise. It became a ship without a country for more than a week as it plied ocean waters looking for a spot to dock, until it finally was granted permission dock in Oakland, Calif. — across the bay from its original landing site of San Francisco. Twenty-three people who needed acute medical care had been taken off the ship by late Monday afternoon, but it was not clear how many had tested positive, a spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services told The the Associated Press.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is in charge of the state’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the Badger State.

The return date, time and location of the 37 Wisconsinites have not been determined. The National Guard volunteers, including about 20 soldiers and 10 airmen will be there to meet them and transport them home in state vehicles.

Gov. Tony Evers cleared the way for National Guard support to DHS and civil authorities when he declared a public health emergency Thursday. The emergency declaration gives the adjutant general the authority to mobilize National Guard resources to state active duty as he deems necessary or upon request from state or local emergency managers.

Serving during times of need and emergency is one of the National Guard’s core missions, as it serves simultaneously as the primary combat reserve for the Army and Air Force.

DHS representatives expressed gratitude for the Guard’s assistance, noting that the citizens returning from the cruise are tired and anxious to get back home.

“We really appreciate you stepping up to take these people home,” DHS’s Joe Cordoba said to the troops, who reported for duty Thursday. “It’s been a long trip for them.”

Lt. Col. Josephine Daniels, the Wisconsin National Guard’s operations branch chief, told the group, “It is really impressive when you have a call-out and you get the kind of response and volunteerism we did. You should be tremendously proud that you stepped up and answered the call and you said, ‘send me,’ when your state needed you.”