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Bennington guardsman aids with COVID-19 response

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COLCHESTER — Nearly 50 members of the Vermont National Guard last week helped set up overflow medical facilities as number of COVID-19 patient in Vermont continued to increase. Among the guardsmen called to active duty was Sgt. Ryan Kunzmann, an Army veteran and Bennington resident.

Kunzmann, 28, was off work as a college police dispatcher on March 22 when he received a series of calls, emails and text messages, telling him to be prepared to go on "state active duty." He was told to report to Camp Johnson, the Vermont National Guard headquarters, in Colchester.

The next day, he was among 25 members of the National Guard Quick Reaction Force who began helping set up the state's three overflow medical facilities. They're located at Gutterson Fieldhouse at the University of Vermont, the Barre Municipal Auditorium and Collins Perley Sports and Fitness Center in St. Albans.

The facilities were being prepared to accommodate patients if hospitals in the area became full. They were specifically designed for people who fall ill with COVID-19, which is caused by the novel coronavirus, but who need a lesser degree of medical intervention.

The guardsmen have set up approximately 50 beds in each site alongside members of the Red Cross and local health care workers, Kunzmann said in a phone interview Thursday.

"Our morale and the morale among the health care workers is very high," he said. "We just wanna try to do what we can to try to break this curve we have going."

As of early afternoon Tuesday, 293 Vermonters have tested positive for COVID-19. Thirteen have died from the disease since the first case was identified in Bennington on March 7.

Eighteen cases have since been reported out of Bennington County, according to data from the state Health Department. The biggest concentration in the state has been found in Chittenden County — 152 patients — thus the overflow medical facilities were set up in nearby areas.

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This mission is Kunzmann's first state active duty with the National Guard, where he is a military police soldier.

He joined the Guard in 2016, after five years in the Army, because he wanted to continue serving in the military after coming back to Vermont. "Doing it for five-and-a-half years, there was a passion there that I loved," said Kunzmann, who was born in New Jersey but moved to Bennington when he was 3.

He graduated from Mount Anthony Union High School and now lives in town with his wife. When not training with the National Guard, he works as a part-time dispatcher for the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' public safety department, as well as a landscaper for Pembroke Landscaping in North Bennington.

"Luckily, my employers are very understanding of my military job," he said. "When it comes to taking the time off for the weekends that I need, they're more than grateful and allowing for me to do that job."

On March 13, Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard in preparation for state active duty. The Quick Reaction Force is on state active duty orders up to April 17, and is on stand-by for potential missions in the near future.

When asked, Kunzmann said he doesn't know how long this mission will last or what his next task would be. He is advising fellow Benningtonians to "keep a positive mindset" while waiting for the coronavirus health crisis to end.

He is reminding folks to continue washing their hands and maintaining social distance — which National Guard members are also observing. But staying six feet away from each other is a practice that even the guardsmen have to keep reminding themselves of, he said.

"It's something new to all of us," Kunzmann said. "But when we're sitting around, talking about the mission, we'll remember and back off a bit."

Contact Tiffany Tan at ttan@benningtonbanner.com, @tiffgtan on Twitter or 802-447-7567 ext. 122.


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