Kate Mock was traveling out west, on spring break and a tour of national parks when she got the call. And she didn’t hesitate to do what she’d signed up to do — serve her country.
Mock is a Georgia Southern University student pursuing a degree in history, with an anthropology minor. A graduate of Statesboro High School, she grew up in Register. She says when she graduated in 2016, she had no idea what she wanted to do. So she enlisted in the National Guard.
“I didn’t really feel like I had any life experience, and also, I wanted to do a gap year. But a gap year where I got paid sounded nice, and an extra set of skills was certainly nice,” she said. She’s been in the guard since March 2016. “It’s been a good training experience. They got me my EMT, and I’ve learned a lot of useful skills.”
Since enlisting, Mock has trained in other states, and has been deployed to Afghanistan. She is currently waiting to deploy to the Republic of Georgia for a training mission. But she has spent the last three months working in some of the state of Georgia’s COVID-19 hotspots.
When she received the call earlier this year, she had to drop half her classes to go to Albany, Georgia. She hadn’t heard of the city.
“I assumed New York. I had never heard of Albany (Georgia),” she said, laughing.
Mock — one of four from her unit to go to Albany — was soon working at Phoebe Putnam Health System. A city of 89,905 people, the first cases of COVID-19 first hit the hospital around the end of February. By March 19, local officials declared a state of emergency in the city and Dougherty County, and a stay-at-home order followed a few days later. As of late June, there were 1,854 confirmed cases in Dougherty County, with 152 deaths.
Mock says they found staff overworked upon their arrival.
“A lot of the nurses when we got there were super burned out. A lot of them were travelers, from a little bit of everywhere. We just tried to ease some of the workload because they were working a lot. They didn’t have a whole lot of days off when we got there,” she said.
Mock and her National Guard peers worked as patient care techs, making calls for the nurses and rushing COVID test result information to them as soon as they came in. They also updated the COVID numbers for the state, and had other clerical duties as well.
She says the situation overall was quite sad.
“I know of multiple people who lost multiple family members in the same family,” she said. “Albany is just not that big. I was there when the death count hit 100. Albany is a little bit bigger than Statesboro. I couldn’t imagine if we lost 100 people here. That would be a huge deal,” she said.
Mock says the toll on the medical staff at Phoebe Putnam wasn’t just physical.
“The nurses all knew someone who had died or were related to someone who had died,” she said. “Everybody lost somebody. COVID itself ran through the hospital staff. They had a reduction of staff because of people getting sick.”
Mock said the staff was split into two teams: one for COVID, and one for everything else. There were multiple National Guard units in place there, she added, not just hers, the 177th Brigade Engineer Battalion, Georgia Army National Guard in Statesboro.
“We did everything we could to make sure that it didn’t spread throughout our units,” she said. “When I left, no one had contracted it. We really worked hard on implementing public health measures.”
Mock has gained some emergency room experience during her time in the Guard, but she says working on the floor was different. While working in Albany, she was able to see long-term care, and gain that knowledge, and see how treatments for COVID-19 were changing in real time
“When I was there, it was still very much Plaquenil, which eventually sort of got phased out. They started giving Heparin, because they noticed a lot of people getting blood clots,” she said.
Mock says she also saw a lot of respiratory therapists working hard, and she came to appreciate their skills.
“Those guys were stretched so thin,” she said, adding that she was able to help them whenever she could.
After leaving Albany, Mock was sent to help in Dublin, Georgia, where she did about 100 COVID tests a day. She called it a “total mission shift.”
“It’s sad and I wish it didn’t have to happen, but I got to help my community, and got to implement some skills. That’s ultimately what I feel the National Guard is for,” she said.
Mock says the testing helped people feel better and helped them to regain a bit of normalcy in their lives.
“People felt better if they could go and get tested, so that way they could maybe go and see Grandma for lunch or something,” she said. “It was a great experience, too.”
Mock returned from Dublin in late June, and took advantage of some leave time. She hopes to head back to GSU in January, and assume a normal class schedule. She was able to finish half of her classes from the spring online, but is looking forward to getting back in the classroom.
She plans to stay in the Guard a while longer.
“It’s definitely good for people who don’t know exactly what they want to do. Sometimes, I get a little burned out on school, and I’m like, you know, I want to take a year off and go to Afghanistan, or take a year off and go on this mission, or I can come on orders,” she said.
Mock says the sense of camaraderie has been great, and as an adrenalin junkie, the Guard has met a lot of needs for her.
“It’s difficult to go to school with so many interruptions, but in the end, I’ll graduate without any debt,” she said.
The Guard has also given Mock experiences most 23-year-olds haven’t had. She enlisted as a geospatial imagery analyst, but as she’s color blind, she’s worked in a medic slot.
“My mom is a nurse, and that seemed like a very applicable, broad skill for me to have, so I took them up on that. Ultimately it will be helpful because I’ve had a deployment, so I meet veteran status, and I want to be a park ranger, so it gives me a leg up on that application process,” she said.
Mock says she wants to work in a park out west, perhaps in Utah or Colorado. She likes how varied the environment there is.
“You can drive two hours in one way or another and be in a totally different biome. That really appeals to me,” she said.
But even so, Mock says she’s open to spending some time at whatever park might be willing to hire her once she graduates. She’s open to working for a couple of years in a park that isn’t her “dream park,” until the right spot opens up. She says those smaller parks, including those in Georgia and Florida, are great as well.
“They certainly have their charms and hidden treasures as well,” she said.
The idea of being a park ranger appeals to Mock, she says, because she loves botany, and likes teaching about animals and plants, and helping people to understand how to be good stewards of the land.
Mock’s parents are Terry and Stephanie Mock. Her mom has been a nurse at East Georgia Regional Medical Center for more than 25 years. Her younger brother, Ty, is currently enlisted in the Marine Corps, and is stationed in Washington state. She says her parents are very supportive of her, as are her grandparents, Larry and Patricia Cartee.
As for the “new normal” in which masks and hand sanitizer is crucial, Mock has strong words for those who don’t take the threat of COVID-19 seriously.
“I’m a little disheartened to see it not be taken seriously,” she said. “I’m very concerned about what Georgia Southern is going to choose to do, because all those kids are going to come in from everywhere, and we have a lot of professors that I would consider at risk, just because of their age. I hope that they really take into consideration that there are immunocompromised students, there are students with asthma, and there are older professors. I really hope that it’s something that they give a lot of thought to, if they decide to have classes in the fall.”
Mock says she is also concerned that Statesboro might become a hotspot this fall for the virus.
“I’m worried about Statesboro possibly becoming a hotspot in the fall, if Southern comes back. And even if people just relax. People don’t think it’s real. That’s difficult for me. I’ve seen some relatively young people die, and you don’t think it’s real, you think it’s all some sort of hoax. I’ve spent the last three months of my life bouncing from hotel room to hotel room, helping out on COVID floors or doing up to 100 COVID tests a day. I don’t want to have to get called up to do this again. I will in a heartbeat, but I don’t want it to be necessary,” she said.
For those who aren’t wearing masks and thinking they’re immune, Mock says the possibility of picking up the virus is still very real — and there may be more than just one person affected.
“You may be perfectly healthy, and you may not think you need to wear a mask, but if you pick this up asymptomatic, or if you pick it up and it takes 14 days to develop symptoms, and you’re in Walmart and you get some old lady sick, well, you’re never going to know that your’re the one who gave it to her. And you’re the one who caused a life- threatening illness or death. But that’s totally a possibility.”