Student-Veterans Activated to Combat COVID-19 Pandemic

By Tom McLaughlin

They are among the best and brightest Rutgers University–Camden students, exemplary scholars who rank at the top of their respective disciplines. But they are soldiers first.

Sgt. Taylor Lorchak

So when New Jersey went into lockdown, U.S. Army National Guard members Sgt. Taylor Lorchak and Sgt. Vincent Mignone – along with five other Rutgers–Camden student-veterans – were activated to combat the growing COVID-19 pandemic in the northern part of the state.

“To those who have been recently activated to assist in the war against the pandemic that has attacked our nation, we at Rutgers–Camden thank them for everything they do daily as they serve this country, and for that we are forever grateful,” says Fred Davis, director of the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs on campus. “Personally, I have never been more proud of those students. As a military veteran, I know how important each of their missions are; I am grateful and look forward to their safe and healthy return.”

Lorchak recalls that, only weeks earlier, she could never have envisioned the mission that lay before her.

The Rutgers University–Camden senior nursing student was amassing considerable clinical experience at hospitals in the South Jersey and Philadelphia area and volunteering as a nursing assistant at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del.

She was also drilling one weekend per month with the U.S. Army National Guard as a 68W combat medic, trained in tending to illnesses, injuries, emergency medical issues, and combat wounds.

Graduation from the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden this May was on the horizon. Then disaster struck.

Lorchak will begin a nursing residency this summer on a telemetry unit at Wellspan York Hospital in York, Pa.

Without warning, Lorchak would spend the following month leading 68W combat medics at the Menlo Park Veterans Nursing Home in Edison. The medics served as assistants to the nurses and nursing assistants, performing routine duties, such as taking patients’ vitals and assisting with their daily hygiene.

“It’s crazy how all of us dropped what we were doing and arrived there, but that’s part of being a soldier, always being ready,” says Lorchak, a student in the accelerated bachelor of science in nursing program. “I never thought that would happen, but it made me a stronger person.”

The Rutgers–Camden senior acknowledges that she and her “battle buddies” enjoyed high morale on the job, which was boosted by the warm reception that they received from the veterans they served.

“It really brightened up their faces to see us in uniforms, especially during this time when family members aren’t permitted to visit them,” says the Claymont, Del. resident. “You saw a lot smiles on their faces when they saw us in uniform. It’s great to see how appreciative they are.”

The team also got an added boost when Lorchak’s accelerated nursing class at Rutgers–Camden treated the medics to lunch catered by Panera Bread.

“We weren’t expecting that,” she says. “We were all incredibly thankful.”

Sgt. Vincent Mignone

Although her clinical experience was in a different setting, she says, many skills that she learned via her Rutgers–Camden education came in useful, including her abilities to move patients properly and assist with hygiene.

“That experience helped me a lot and it gave me the opportunity teach the other medics as well,” says Lorchak, who previously earned a bachelor’s degree in music, playing the French horn, at The College of New Jersey.

Meanwhile, Mignone, an infantryman with the National Guard for the past seven years, was activated in mid-April with only 24 hours’ notice and deployed to serve at a pop-up hospital at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center in Edison. He led a security detail that ensured the safety of patients and workers on-site, took temperatures, and scanned people in and out of the building.

It was difficult putting his life on hold, he says, however it was extremely rewarding.

“There is a sense of pride achieved when serving your own community,” says the business administration major. “New Jersey is my home, and these are our people, our community. I take pride in doing what I can for my home. I will always answer the call in a time of distress for my state.”

He notes that one of the biggest daily challenges by far was keeping up with all the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), making sure not to touch their faces, and always wearing a mask.

Mignone plans to begin his second internship this summer with Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical company.

“Working long hours in masks and PPE gets very irritating but is necessary,” says Mignone, a lifelong resident of Monroe.

He adds that he was pleasantly surprised to see how well the state and local communities followed social distancing and mask wearing.

“This is important to keep everyone safe and everyone is doing a great job,” he says.

Mignone says that his biggest takeaways from his time at Rutgers–Camden and his military service, especially his service in the National Guard, is his ability to juggle multiple tasks at once. He acknowledges that it can be a challenge juggling a full-time civilian job, full-time school, and his military obligations, all while watching out for those under his command and ensuring that they are completing their duties.

His ability to not only meet these challenges, but succeed, has caught the eye of potential employers.

“I have seen how impressed they are with the many things I have juggled in my life at once,” says Mignone, who earned an associate’s degree in business from Brookdale Community College. “I feel confident in taking on any responsibility and doing it to the best of my ability.”

Mignone and Lorchak both laud Rutgers–Camden’s Office of Veterans Affairs for its support in balancing their service obligations with their studies.

“The office was always helpful, but before this pandemic, I didn’t realize how creative a resource it is, especially in times like this,” says Lorchak, who says that Davis helped serve as a liaison between her and her professors. “It makes me especially grateful for having them. I recommend Rutgers–Camden for any active soldier or veteran; they really have a great support system.”

Mignone echoed the sentiment, saying that Davis and his team have helped him satisfy benefits and policy requirements that can feel like an almost impossible task.

“I have always felt like the office has had my back, especially during difficult times,” he says.

His deployment now complete, Mignone plans to begin his second internship this summer with Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical company, and finish his undergraduate studies at Rutgers–Camden this fall. He then has his sights set on pursing a master’s degree.

This summer, Lorchak will begin a nursing residency on a telemetry unit at Wellspan York Hospital in York, Pa. – in addition to marrying her fiancé, Mike Krantz, a maintenance analyst in the Air National Guard. Her long-term goal is to secure a leadership role for a hospital, making a difference for patients as a member of evidence-based practice committees.

 

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