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Total Force in Action: Reserve mental health team provides pandemic support at Academy

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  • By Bo Joyner

It was just before 7 a.m. on a Friday morning in July and Col. (Dr.) Mario Tommasi was getting ready to start his work day at Rutgers University in New Jersey when his phone rang.

The voice on the other end wanted to know if Tommasi, a psychologist, could lead a team of Air Force Reserve mental health professionals on a mission to support cadets at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado who may be challenged by the rigors of Academy life in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Within a week, Tommasi, who serves as the individual mobilization augmentee to the Air Force director of psychological health, and five hand-selected Reserve mental health professionals were at the Academy, tasked with providing support to cadets who, in one way or another, were impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. 

“Some cadets were identified as positive for COVID-19, others had symptoms and were awaiting test results, still others were contact traced to a person who was positive for COVID-19,” Tommasi said. “These cadets were moved to quarantine and isolation areas within the dorms, and the stress on the cadets and the staff was significant.”

The Reserve mental health team went to work right away. In addition to Tommasi, the team was comprised of Col. Susan Beylotte, Lt. Col. Brande Newsome, Maj. Mayara Coulter, Staff Sgt. Melissa Mendez and Senior Airman Vivian Gaytan.

“The first thing we did was coordinate with the existing mental health team and cadet wing leadership to devise a plan that would augment the dorm-imbedded supportive work that was already being done. To this end, my team integrated itself into a schedule of support that included us working shifts that did not end until around 9 p.m., seven days a week for the majority of the mission,” Tommasi said.

The team used an improvised embedded mental health approach that included extensive presence within the cadet dorms. Team members reached cadets through planned coaching, informal hallway engagements and doorway consultations. The team also made extensive efforts to consult and advise with the staff and cadet leadership.

“We advised on specific cadet issues, dorm wellness climate and we made suggestions on how to address future issues before they arose,” Tommasi said.

By the end of the 54-day mission, the team had more than 1,000 episodes of contact with cadets, many of which were follow-ups and continued conversations.

“This is important because in so doing, we were able to show a continuity of care despite rapidly changing conditions among the cadets and dorm arrangements,” Tommasi said. “The feedback was uniformly positive and appreciative. A common theme was something like, ‘it feels good to know somebody cares’ and ‘talking to someone about this is really helpful.’”

Lt. Col. El-Len Serra, a Reservist who is currently serving as the deputy director for culture and climate at the Academy, said the team performed even better than expected.

“I think this is one of those situations where the people who volunteered to come here were the six perfect people for the job,” she said. “When they got here, we got them their access and they hit the ground running. They had a wealth of knowledge and experience and they used it to support our cadets, who were extremely appreciative of their services.”

Newsome, a licensed clinical social worker and the deputy director of the Reserve Affairs Medical Directorate, said she was honored to be a part of the team providing support to the cadets, the permanent party staff and the Academy mental health team.

“I give the Academy leadership a lot of credit for recognizing that their isolated and quarantined cadets were in need of emotional support,” she said. “These young people are all highly motivated and top performers, and it was very trying for them to be stuck in their rooms and miss classes. We spent time just reinforcing with them that this is where they are supposed to be right now and they are not alone.”

She said the team was also able to help the cadets deal with non-COVID challenges. “I spent a few sessions with one cadet who was facing possible disenrollment, and I was able to give him some breathing techniques and relaxation exercises he could do before he went in front of the commandant. They seemed to help because he did well during the meeting with the commandant and they decided to retain him. There was another cadet who was in tears after finding out her aunt died unexpectedly. I spent time with her processing the loss and we soon shifted to discussing the memories of great times with her aunt during their journey together in life.”

Tommasi said the team’s work extended beyond the dorms. As a result of manning shortages, the two mental health technicians on the team, Mendez and Gaytan, were used to complement the existing resources at the Academy’s Peak Performance Center. They contributed to the operational mission by performing patient care activities consistent with their training and competencies. 

The colonel said he was proud of what the team accomplished in such a short, yet targeted, amount of time.

“I am grateful we had such a great team of Reserve mental health professionals,” he said. “We did exactly what great Citizen Airmen do. We responded eagerly, demonstrating a commitment to the Air Force. They all showed tremendous teamwork, coming together to collaborate, brainstorm and work together to provide an effective complement to the existing support networks. All of this matters because it speaks to the concept of the Total Force in action. Our mission was successful because of the coming together of the existing active-duty resources and those capabilities brought by my Reserve team. I look forward to getting more early morning phone calls.” #ReserveReady #ReserveResilient        ■