Guard members embrace job that can make surprising demands

Published 5:18 pm Tuesday, January 11, 2022

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ST. CLOUD — From assisting at COVID-19 testing sites to protecting the U.S. Capitol, it’s been a busy two years for the Minnesota National Guard.

Lt. Alexander Brown said there’s been some surprises in the National Guard when it comes to expectations versus experience.

“When I joined the military, I didn’t necessarily expect I was going to be working at a nursing home,” he told the St. Cloud Times.

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He expects every Minnesota National Guard member has had something like that go through their minds in the last couple of years. But at its crux, the way the National Guard has served the state in the last two years is exactly what being in the Guard is all about, Brown said.

“If that’s what helps the community, if that’s what it takes to help, then that’s what it takes to help,” he said. “The exact nature of filling sandbags or dressing the elderly — that’s just the job.”

Sgt. Andrew Syvertson, 21, was born and raised in Sauk Rapids and has been in the National Guard for four years.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always looked up to soldiers,” Syvertson said. “I wanted to be able to serve my community in every way possible.”

The National Guard allows him to do that while also having a good home life, Syvertson said. Syvertson recently took a job as an automotive service adviser for St. Cloud Hyundai.

Gov. Tim Walz announced in the fall that Minnesota National Guard members would be assigned to ease the burden on long-term care workers whose facilities are struggling amid COVID-19 and staffing shortages.

Syvertson went through CNA training in early December. Right now, he’s backup personnel, ready to be called in at a facility the Guard is already assisting in case the location needs more trained personnel, Syvertson said.

Brown is already at work as a CNA at a facility in Battle Lake. He also completed his CNA training in early December.

Neither Syvertson nor Brown had previous experience in health care before beginning their CNA training. The training National Guard members went through is the same required training for anyone looking to become a certified CNA, but expedited and condensed into 10 days. CNAs provide basic care for patients and assist patients with daily activities, such as making sure patients are clean, dressed and getting their daily exercise, Brown said.

“We’re enabling the nurses to actually do their jobs,” he said.

Brown, 23, is a recent transplant to Minnesota; he moved to the St. Cloud area in August and works at Coldspring. He attended school at Mercer University in Georgia, where he did ROTC. His family was moving away from Georgia, and “I didn’t want to really sit there by myself,” he said.

The ROTC program booth caught his eye during freshman orientation at Mercer. He got onto the mailing list. And then?

“I just kept showing up,” he said.

Brown grew up in Fargo, where he has some memories of Guard members stacking sandbags along the Red River. He’s considered joining the Army full-time and has always wanted to serve in some capacity, but first, he said, he wanted to do something on the local level.

“I wanted to help a community,” Brown said.

So when he got a call about a week before Thanksgiving, letting him know about CNA training for National Guard members, he volunteered to do it.

Brown volunteered to work as a CNA for the same reason he joined the National Guard in the first place: to help the community, he said. He wasn’t around to help during the unrest in summer 2020, following the death of George Floyd — a Black man who died after he was pinned to the ground by a white Minneapolis police officer with his knee on Floyd’s neck — or in spring 2021, following the shooting of Black motorist Daunte Wright by a white police officer in Brooklyn Center.

“Now that I’m finally here, I’d love to help out somehow. Earn my paycheck, right?” Brown said.

Brown said he didn’t know much about what it meant to be a CNA walking into it, and he hadn’t considered a career in health care. Working as a CNA means helping people with things you don’t always expect to do for other people, Brown said.

“I think as long as you have a basic level of just empathy and care, I think a lot of it comes down to that,” he said.

Syvertson said he believes most people taking the course were volunteers. He said may of the people he worked with volunteered not only to undergo CNA training, but also for other COVID-19 missions, such as helping out at testing sites.

“A lot of us really just do everything we can to help out our fellow Minnesotans,” Syvertson said.

Syvertson said he has considered a career in health care, as he likes interacting with people and helping others.

“Health care has definitely kind of been in the back of my mind for a while,” he said.

This is his first mission dealing with health care, but he said he saw it as a good opportunity to help out. He knows people who work as CNAs, he said, and he knows it’s a stressful job — particularly when there aren’t enough employees.

“I know I want to do everything I can to help out,” Syvertson said.

But no one could have predicted what “help out” would mean for the Minnesota National Guard these last two years.

“With how the last couple years have been, no, I don’t think anyone would come out and say it’s been a great couple years,” Syvertson said. “But with joining the National Guard, I mean, that’s what we signed up for. That’s what we’re wanting to do. We want to get out there and help our community in any way possible.”

Almost every moment, he’s not quite sure he knew this was what he was signing up for. He was particularly surprised by the announcement the Minnesota National Guard would ask members to become CNAs.

But Syvertson said being in the Guard is like building a house: You do one task at a time, and in the end, you get to see what was accomplished through all that hard work. He’s hoping that he can make a difference in a long-term care facility, helping residents and other certified nursing assistants.

Syvertson’s unit was activated for two civil disturbance response missions in the Twin Cities and was also sent on the U.S. Capitol support mission in Washington, D.C.

When he was in the Twin Cities, he observed a community that was very supportive of the Guard’s effort to help out and protect everyone’s rights, Syvertson said. Community members would make conversation or bring donuts and drinks.

“It was very awesome just seeing the community stepping up and supporting us the way they did,” he said.

According to Brown, being part of the National Guard requires a certain “roll with the punches” attitude of adaptability, Brown said.

“It might not be what you necessarily expected, but it is what you signed up for,” he said.

For Brown, it’s also a way to start off on the right foot as a new Minnesotan.

“You can hear it from how I talk,” Brown said.

“I’m not a Minnesota native. So as someone who’s new to the area, who’s a bit of a stranger around here, it’s nice to be kind of giving back to a degree. I feel like everyone has an obligation to do what they can for those around them, be that on a personal level or to the community as a whole. And I think that as the new kid on the block, I’m happy to be starting off doing something for people. That does motivate me to a fair degree.”