Here is the next installment in our series sharing exceptional work by Alaska state employees during the pandemic. The State of Alaska has long been one of our closest and most reliable partners, helping to develop workforce housing, build and renovate domestic violence shelters, improve libraries and start from scratch a philanthropy for all of Alaska, the Pick.Click.Give program. Rasmuson Foundation President and CEO Diane Kaplan recently asked State of Alaska commissioners to highlight some of those whose efforts to adapt and respond stand out for going above and beyond, often in ways not seen by the public. This series is the result.
Part five of the series features the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which supports veterans, responds to emergencies and disasters, and oversees Alaska National Guard military operations.
Help for veterans in medical crisis, support for State COVID testing and a large-scale Alaska National Guard deployment are among the ways this department stepped up during the pandemic.
The deployment provided a visible cue of the state military response to the pandemic. Yet it was the behind-the-scenes work of an innovative administrative assistant that ensured smooth, timely activation of not only Alaska National Guard, but also Alaska Naval Militia and Alaska State Defense Force members.
Wayne Romberg created a state active duty roster that captured key pre-employment information for over 1,200 National Guard service members. There’s a lot of information on this spreadsheet: Name, rank and military unit, enlistment date and number of dependents, military orders and amendments to them. The upheaval of the pandemic created a need for large numbers of service members to dish up meals for those experiencing homelessness, keep Alaskans safe at temporary shelters transformed from ice arenas, and generally help coronavirus testing go smoothly. But until their information could be verified, they couldn’t serve active duty.
“Reviewing and verifying information on over 1,200 State of Alaska pre-employment packets was a monumental undertaking,” said Stephanie Richard, administrative services director. “Without capturing this level of detailed information electronically, the result would have been a delay in activating service members during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Romberg worked long hours beyond that. He created an automated pay calculator that linked to the master roster, saving hours of manual pay calculations to account for basic allowances, cost-of-living allowances, rank, years of service and number of dependents. The result, the department said, was accurate and timely paychecks for hundreds of service personnel.
Other offices also dealt with other unanticipated issues. Serious medical issues began cropping up for veterans in numbers and of a sort not normally seen, according to the Office of Veteran Affairs. Officials determined that veterans were delaying needed medical care because of COVID-19 and the message to stay home. And U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities weren’t seeing noncritical patients.
“This causes even more stress for those we serve,” said Verdie Bowen, director of the State Office of Veterans Affairs.
Enter Forrest Powell, a client care manager responsible for reviewing all communications. Bowen said: “Forrest is amazingly skilled at listening to all our clients.” Clients often call in a state of extreme agitation with a difficult issue. Powell stays calm, listens and helps them get to the needed next level of service. Just being heard helps clients immensely.
“All in the Office of Veterans Affairs are trained to receive clients with issues, but Forrest is key to bringing calm to this crisis. He is a valued member of our team and needs to be commended for his heartfelt service,” Bowen said.
Two additional service members stand out for their work helping the Alaska State Public Health Laboratories process possible COVID-19 samples. Capt. Jamie Bowden of the Alaska Army National Guard and Capt. Roger Tran of the Air National Guard, both members of the 103rd Civil Support Team, spent their summer assigned to the public health lab processing COVID samples. Together, they tested over 11,000 samples. Lab testing is a specialized skill that requires extensive training and supervision, knowledge and skills to be done effectively and accurately.
“While we are proud of the whole team at Military and Veterans Affairs, these four individuals stand out for selfless service, innovative approaches, and going above and beyond,” said the department’s commissioner, Maj. Gen. Torrence W. Saxe.