When I got orders to deploy to Navajo Nation, I was tremendously excited, though I had no idea what to expect. I had deployed locally to other vaccination support operations, but this was my first distant deployment. I didn’t know who I would be with, nor what we would find when we arrived in Gallup, NM.
During our first night at “FOB Lobo,” our Task Force Leader explained how the Navajo people have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and have only recently started coming out of lockdown, reaching a point where they can start being in public again. She told us that our mission would range from logistical support of the vaccine operation to other projects that would help the locals get back on their feet. The long and short of it was that we were there to live the Greyshirt motto, to Get Shit Done. So, we did.
On our first day, we went to a local food bank and community garden, where we built compost bins, removed brush to create space for crops, readied planters, and tilled a big pile of manure into the soil to get ready for planting. (Yup, our mission included *literally* getting shit done). With our team’s help, the staff now has more time to do the important work of not only keeping the community fed, but also providing them with the knowledge and space to grow food for themselves.
The rest of our time was spent working the vaccine clinics and supporting the local health centers. Our task force quickly learned each other’s names and stories. Then, we got to work.
With each interaction with local citizens getting vaccinated and with the healthcare providers and staff, we realized just how personal the pandemic was to the people here. We met a security guard who had 14 family members die from COVID-19 in the past year; a pediatrician who treated patients who had lost a sibling; countless individuals who had been infected, and many who were scared and exhausted.
The most striking part of the mission was when half of the task force—myself included—was sent to a clinic near Kayenta, AZ. By then, our team had built quite the camaraderie and fed off of each other’s enthusiasm, jokes, and laughter.
The clinic we served at was very small and very remote. It takes the nearest ambulance 45 minutes to get to the facility. We met the staff, got our assignments for the day, and attended the morning briefing, led by the Incident Command Team and the Indian Health Services Commander at the clinic. As they spoke and offered their words of encouragement to the staff, it was painfully clear how long and arduous the past year had been on them. They were tired, working long hours, and feeling abandoned. After working by their side, however, we also saw their incredible passion for the people they serve. During the day, we learned about their culture, families, and the land they called home. We told jokes and shared stories, laughed together, and enjoyed a homemade lunch provided by their staff. When we debriefed at the end of the day, the Commander told us, in between tears, that that day had been the first time she had heard her staff laugh in a very long time.
The best day for the Navajo Nation is approaching. Their people have fought hard through tremendous loss and often with limited resources, yet they are finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Our small team of Greyshirts was sad to have to say goodbye but truly honored to have provided what support we could.
Until we meet again, stay strong, Navajo Nation. We have your back.