In the Time of Coronavirus: Reflections of a D.C. Guardsman

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Deborah Ou-Yang
  • D.C. National Guard

Fresh out of the Defense Information School’s Public Affairs Qualification Course (PAQC), I am a newly minted public affairs officer in the D.C. Air National Guard. On the civilian side, I am a foreign service officer for the U.S. Department of State, assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang, China.

When I journeyed from China to Fort Meade, Maryland, for PAQC in January 2020, I had no idea what the world would look like by the time training would end in mid-March. By the end of the course, the hard and soft skills that I would learn would be invaluable to confront crises—like a pandemic—that no one can entirely plan for ahead of time.

I arrived in the U.S. a couple weeks before the coronavirus began to overwhelm China. Public health experts had yet to come up with the term COVID-19. By the end of January, the State Department had authorized departure (i.e., voluntary evacuation) for their staff, and the Air Force had ordered departure for service members in China.

In my experience with the Air Force, putting people first is not just a mantra. Within 24 hours of announcing ordered departure, the Air Force immediately contacted me through my unit, the schoolhouse detachment and the Air Force Personnel Accountability and Assessment System. My husband, still in China at the time, made plans to evacuate to the U.S. The commander at the schoolhouse checked in with me daily on his status and whereabouts. My classmates gave me emotional and moral support. As I was learning in PAQC and firsthand, an essential part of effective public affairs work is ensuring that our audience—service members, their families, neighbors in our community—is informed in a timely manner and feels seen and heard.

Teamwork is an important part of any military training. Together, my classmates and I studied for AP style quizzes. We prepared for public affairs staff briefings and media interviews within the training environment, which simulated natural disaster responses and other incidents. To give back to my training community and share expertise from my civilian job, I gave a briefing on U.S. national security in China from a foreign service officer’s perspective. I talked about human rights violations, protests in Hong Kong and, of course, COVID-19. At the time, we discussed the virus in terms of its effect on China and its government, economy and public health system. Little did we know the global impact it would make.

Our final week would consist of a three-day final mock exercise, out-processing and graduation. Over the weekend before our final week, however, the situation changed rapidly. The Department of Defense issued its initial 60-day travel restrictions. The Defense Information School shifted up our graduation date. We returned to the schoolhouse to out process and said our farewells to instructors and classmates. Given the short notice, I expected a cursory distribution of paperwork. Instead, our instructors held an informal graduation for us, a touching ceremony that was creatively put together in the short time they had to do so. We left PAQC with not only our certificates and newfound knowledge but also connections we had forged over the past two months.

Instead of our final exercise, my classmates and I launched into the real-world crisis communications of a COVID-19 response. We applied the skills we learned during PAQC: managing media relations, communicating effectively with our stakeholders and engaging the community while maintaining appropriate social distancing. We continue to be resources for each other through Facebook. (What better medium than a social media platform for public affairs officers to keep in touch?) 

I have since returned to my civilian job at the State Department, albeit in Washington, D.C., instead of Shenyang, China. From here, I serve on a repatriations task force to help bring back U.S. citizens who are stuck overseas. The D.C. Air National Guard has adapted to the situation with Facebook town halls and virtual drills. For both the State Department and Air National Guard, I employ the valuable communication skills and the importance of teamwork that I learned during PAQC. 

Conveying updated safety and health guidance as well as the National Guard’s mission to provide assistance during national emergencies is as important now as ever before. Effective communication is essential for leadership across all units, with teams working apart from each other during virtual drills. Public affairs plays a critical role in synthesizing and disseminating guidance, advising leadership and connecting all of us, so that together—whether virtually or physically—we can accomplish the mission.