As COVID-19 rates remain high and healthcare worker shortages widen, a Western Wisconsin alumnus is rolling up her sleeves to help with the crisis as part of the Minnesota National Guard. In late November, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz activated the Minnesota National Guard to serve as skilled-nursing “rapid response teams” to support health care facilities experiencing severe staffing shortages. This meant Heather Rushfeldt, an Amery High School 2005 graduate, needed to prepare for duty.

Minnesota is one of the latest states joining Indiana, Maine, New Hampshire and New York to have National Guard train as certified nursing assistants as part of their state’s COVID-19 response.

After graduating from Amery, Rushfeldt attended the University of Wisconsin, River Falls for two years. She transitioned to Crown College in St. Bonifacius, MN. for one semester and transitioned again to Bethlehem College and Seminary where she completed a Bachelor of Theology degree in 2012.

“I decided to enlist in the Army during my final year of college. As I neared graduation, I realized that career opportunities for me were slim. The country was still recovering from the 2008 recession, and I did not plan to work in the field of formal ministry,” said Rushfeldt.

She shared her family had a strong military background, so she discussed military service with her father and a few of her professors.  She said, “My dad (a West Point graduate) was surprised but thought an enlistment in the Army sounded like a good next step. As it happened, the Pastoral Care professor at my school was a recently retired Army chaplain. He provided me with some wonderful insight and mentorship.”

Rushfeldt originally planned to complete one four-year enlistment, part ways with the military, and purse higher education. “Plans and circumstances tend to change, however, and that was the case for me. I decided to continue serving with the Minnesota National Guard while pursuing a master’s degree. I became close friends with many of my colleagues, I genuinely enjoy my job, and I have developed a great appreciation for the care that military chaplains provide. I am now a current student at Bethel Seminary and hope to pursue chaplaincy myself,” she said.

In all of her duty assignments, her official role has been the same. Rushfeldt said, “Alongside the battalion Chaplain, I am part of what’s called a ‘Unit Ministry Team’ which works to support and provide for the free exercise of religion for all Soldiers in the unit. The three core competencies of the Army Chaplain Corps are:  Nurture the Living, Care for the Wounded, Honor the Fallen. I have tried to do this to the best of my ability in every unit to which I have been assigned.”

Rushfeldt’s current assignment being trained as a Nursing Assistant to support long term care facilities experiencing staffing shortages is outside the scope of her typical duties. “I endeavor to do this to the best of my ability as well,” she said.

Although she knew the Minnesota National Guard had been involved in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year, Rushfeldt received notice of her activation for this mission Sunday, November 21 and reported for duty Friday, November 26. “I am glad to be a part of this mission. I have a lot of faith in my colleagues. I am confident that we’ll be able to provide quality care to folks residing in any long-term care facility to which we are assigned,” she said.

Rushfeldt was assigned to complete Nursing Assistant training and state certification testing at Anoka Technical College. She, along with about 80 other Soldiers, completed 75 hours of training (including 16 hours of practical training). The training consists of mastering 60 specific skills and learning how to provide care as a Nursing Assistant. Rushefeldt said, “I enjoyed the training. I found all of the trainers at Anoka Technical College to be incredibly patient, professional, and experienced. We learned more than the specific skills needed to provide physical care. Many of us had practical or situational questions. Our trainers were always ready to field these questions, provide guidance, and offer insight.”

Rushfeldt has yet to be assigned. Her duties will include assisting residents of long-term care facilities with activities of daily living.

“Our force is highly adaptive and with training will assist Minnesota’s health care community in responding to health care staffing shortages,” said Army Maj. Gen. Shawn Manke, the Minnesota National Guard’s adjutant general.

“One of the Minnesota National Guard’s pillars is people, as they are our most valuable resource,” said Manke. “We acknowledge that we share this resource with employers, and we know these activations can disrupt their businesses and organizations. We appreciate the employers of our Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen, as we could not conduct our federal, state and community missions without their support.”

Representatives from the Minnesota National Guard said they do not know how long the missions involving long-term care facilities and alternative care sites will last. Rushfeldt said she is ready to support as long as there is a need.

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