By - April 03, 2023
For laboratory professional Captain Carolyn Gill, MLS (ASCP), the idea of service to others runs bone deep. While still in high school in Nebraska, she became a medic in the Air National Guard, a reserve component of the Air Force that requires members to attend a drill weekend once a month and active-duty training two weeks each year.
More than 20 years later, Captain Gill’s continuing Air National Guard participation has led her to a host of meaningful experiences, especially during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. “When the pandemic hit, I was asked to go to the Pentagon and work for General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to help with the military response in organizing COVID testing for our members and the community,” she says. “It was quite the experience!”
In retrospect, it seems as if all the previous threads of her life came together for that assignment. With a father who served full-time in the Nebraska Air National Guard and a mother who was a medical technologist, Captain Gill’s work brings her the best of her parents’ worlds. She continued to work as an Air National Guard medic through college, graduating from the University of Nebraska Medical Center Medical Laboratory Science Program in 2005.
Captain Gill continued part-time with the Air National Guard even as she launched her laboratory career as a generalist at Bryan Health in Lincoln, Nebraska. “In my first job out of college, I trained in hematology, chemistry, and blood banking and then fairly soon was promoted to lead tech and added scheduling and personnel tasks to my responsibilities,” she says.
Captain Gill continued at Bryan Health until 2011. After marrying an active-duty service member, she and her husband moved to Newport News, Virginia. There she worked as a hospital generalist in the Bon Secours Mary Immaculate Hospital laboratory. She also joined the Virginia Air National Guard, this time as an intelligence analyst at Joint-Base Langley-Eustis. “When I had my job at the hospital, I was doing the Guard part-time, but then I’d be on orders full-time for six months to a year at a time,” she says, “So there was always something different going on.”
In 2016, Captain Gill moved again within Virginia, becoming a biomedical laboratory officer in the District of Columbia National Guard in 2016. “That’s the military term for a clinical laboratory scientist,” she says. “I’m the only lab officer in our unit and, in fact, one of only about 10 in the entire Air National Guard.”
Of course, everything changed in March 2020 when the pandemic shutdowns began. “I got a phone call saying that there was a need for someone with a medical background who also had a security clearance to go to the Pentagon to be a liaison for the National Guard Bureau,” Captain Gill says. “It all happened pretty quickly, within a week from getting that phone call to reporting to the Pentagon.”
Each day Captain Gill was responsible for monitoring and reporting the status of each state’s National Guard units. “We had to keep track of how many service members had COVID-19 and how many could be deployed in each location every day if needed due to the crisis,” she says. “Each state reported how many service members were healthy and how many were sick, and whether they were hospitalized or recovering at home, and then I would relay that information to senior leadership so they would know who could be deployed if needed.”
Captain Gill’s work on the COVID response did not go unnoticed. She received two awards:
Captain Gill’s activation at the Pentagon was extended to help address the widespread civil unrest that swept the United States in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Once she returned home to Virginia in late September 2020, she hoped life was well on its way to returning to normal.
However, following additional civil unrest at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Captain Gill was again activated to the Pentagon to support the Air National Guard units that were called up. “I ran the COVID testing for the 113th Wing to test all our members,” she says. “For every service member who came up, we had to verify that they had been screened for COVID and were not running a fever.”
The initial weeks of that activation were a blur for Captain Gill. “We had a crazy number of troops flying in at all hours of the day and night,” she said. “Initially, it was literally a 24/7 operation to keep up with all the paperwork and testing.” She and her staff performed COVID testing on all service members who requested it, whether on arrival or at the end of their mission, before returning to their communities.
This activation lasted until May 2021. During that time, Captain Gill continued to track the COVID status and injury status of unit members who may have been ill or injured while on orders in the capitol.
Back home in Charlottesville, Captain Gill delivered a son in November 2021. She is now enjoying time at home with him and continuing part-time service with the DC Air National Guard.
Since her 2020 and 2021 activations, Captain Gill has had time to reflect on the role of service in her life and to compare civilian and military laboratory roles. “The biggest difference I’ve noticed is that, on the civilian side, the clinical laboratory scientists work the bench a lot more,” she says. “And in the military, you don’t really get to do much testing anymore. It’s definitely more of an administrative role.”
But what really stands out to Captain Gill is the laboratory’s importance throughout the pandemic. “Of course, I was proud to receive personal recognition, but I also thought it was really neat to see the lab getting recognized,” she says. “Normally the lab kind of gets overlooked, but we’ve played such a key role throughout the pandemic.”