Feature   Know Your Military

Face of Defense: A Public Health Tech's Role During COVID-19

Jan. 4, 2021 | BY Katie Lange , DOD News

In 2020, public health workers — including service members — found themselves in the spotlight more than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic forced them into overdrive to help those in need — a job that seems to be never-ending. 

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob "LB" Linsenbigler, a public health technician with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, has been on the front lines of the crisis since it unfolded. 

An airman in dress blues poses for a photo in front of a flag.
Jacob Linsenbigler
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob Linsenbigler with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard poses for an official photo.
Photo By: Courtesy of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob Linsenbigler, Pennsylvania Air National Guard
VIRIN: 201229-O-ZZ999-111

Linsenbigler has been with the Pennsylvania Guard for more than seven years and works full time with the 171st Medical Group. The 31-year-old's career field requires him to wear many hats — a skill that has served him well since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

So, how have he and his colleagues dealt with the intensity of the past year? Linsenbigler fills us in on the toughest part of the pandemic, how he's personally coping with it, and how, as a unit, they're getting through it together.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob Linsenbigler
Job Title: Public Health Technician
Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Stationed: Pittsburgh International Airport in Coraopolis, Pa.
Unit: 171st Medical Group, Pennsylvania Air National Guard

An airman in sunglasses walks away from a pickup truck loaded with supplies.
Military Mission
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob Linsenbigler, assigned to the 171st Medical Group of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, works to load a vehicle with mission-oriented, protective-posture gear near Pittsburgh, Sept. 16, 2020. Linsenbigler also serves as the medical group unit deployment manager.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Bryan Hoover, Pennsylvania Air National Guard
VIRIN: 200916-Z-EY983-1017

Tell me about your Air National Guard career and what it is you do.

When I first enlisted, I enlisted into Medical Logistics, which was an awesome career field. "Loggies" are the first line of defense in the medical world, making sure the hospitals and clinics have sufficient inventory of supplies — everything from prescriptions, personal protective equipment and medical hazardous materials to having contracts set up with vendors. 

An airman stands on the tarmac in front of a passenger jet.
Air Force One
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob Linsenbigler of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard poses in front of Air Force One during a visit by President Donald J. Trump to the 171st Air Refueling Wing in Coraopolis, Pa., Aug. 13, 2019.
Photo By: Courtesy of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob Linsenbigler, Pennsylvania Air National Guard
VIRIN: 201229-O-ZZ999-107C

After a few years, I knew that public health was my true calling and switched careers. Since I was already militarily trained in that field, once a full-time position opened up, I jumped at the opportunity to be a public health technician. A public health technician is the pulse of the clinic and is involved in so many different entities of the clinic and base. We conduct audiograms, occupational health exams, occupational shop visits, fetal protection interviews and pregnancy profiles, food and hotel inspections either on base or in the community, base entomology and vector/pest surveillance — all of these to ensure the health and safety of our members. At the end of the day, we are the jacks-of-all-trade[s] of preventative medicine.

When COVID-19 came along, how did your job change? 

Public health went from being a base-wide entity to a countywide and DOD-wide asset. Our primary focus used to be audiograms and occupational health exams, deployment health readiness for members and food inspections. While those are still our focus, COVID-19 has been what most of our job focus went to for the time being. The public health career field has always had to wear multiple hats, and I think it helped equip us well for doing so now during the pandemic.

How has your wing been called upon to help the state get through this crisis?

We've had some of our medics volunteer to go onto state active-duty orders to help in response to COVID-19. Those same members have either gone into nursing homes to provide relief to staff or conduct COVID-19 testing to members who are getting ready to deploy, as well as making contact tracing phone calls on our behalf. They've worked long shifts, weekends and holidays to provide care and support for our commonwealth, and they're the best of the best our state and the Air National Guard has to offer.

A person with gloved hands puts a vial into a secure container on a table.
Drive-Thru Test
Air National Guardsmen with the 171st Air Refueling Wing’s Aerospace Medical Squadron and Public Health office conduct drive-through COVID-19 testing for unit members of the 171st Air Refueling Wing Medical Group in Pittsburgh, July 16, 2020.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Zoe M. Wockenfuss, Pennsylvania Air National Guard
VIRIN: 200716-Z-OK627-1019C

We've been working with other local reserve units such as the 910th Airlift Wing in Youngstown, Ohio, and 911th Airlift Wing in Pittsburgh to ensure we all have the same information. We bounce ideas and guidelines off each other for implementation. We've also worked with the local county health department and hospitals to ensure cohesiveness throughout the community.

What's one of the toughest things you've dealt with as a public health worker? 

I believe the hardest part of being a public health worker during this pandemic was that, at the beginning, we actually had too much information. With this being a new virus, there was an information overload coming from all avenues. With that being said, it's not necessarily a bad thing that so many entities are involved — quite the opposite — but when one counterpart was saying one thing, another would be saying something slightly different. We've now gotten to the point where most of that has subsided, but the first few months of this were the equivalent of going 0-60 MPH on all fronts. Now that we've managed to get to a point where we are all relatively on the same page, it's been a lot easier to manage the pandemic from an information aspect.

A couple in wedding attire kiss as the sun shines down on them.
Wedding Kiss
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob Linsenbigler of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard and his wife, Meghan, pose for a photo on their wedding day, Dec. 7, 2019.
Photo By: Courtesy of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob Linsenbigler, Pennsylvania Air National Guard
VIRIN: 201229-O-ZZ999-109
A man sits with his arms and legs up in the air on a dance floor.
Wedding Dance
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob Linsenbigler of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard cuts a rug on the dance floor at his wedding, Dec. 7, 2019.
Photo By: Courtesy of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob Linsenbigler, Pennsylvania Air National Guard
VIRIN: 201229-O-ZZ999-108

As for my colleagues, we have members all throughout parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia who have been working in different hospital settings. They've faced staff shortages, PPE shortages, and they continue to battle each and every day to protect and save lives. Most continue to wear both hats, fighting on the front lines in their civilian jobs as well as volunteering for COVID-19 tasks in a military capacity. It's humbling to watch them work, knowing what they and their families have been through.

Has it been hard to manage your personal life while being on the front lines? 

My wife and I got married on Dec. 7, 2019, so we just celebrated our one-year anniversary together. The first year of marriage started by us taking our honeymoon to Puerto Rico in January, and we were "lucky" enough to be there during the 6.4 earthquake that rocked the island. Needless to say, with that and everything after, the first year was extremely challenging for both of us! But we have been very fortunate over the past year to be healthy, and we are expecting our first child in March. There are times where my wife knows how my day went and she tries to lighten the mood, and she's helped me out during this more than she'll ever know.

Does your team have any particular way of coping with the increased stress? 

Everyone on my team has their own way of cheering others up, whether it's stopping to get coffee for everyone, bringing in treats or just making sure everyone is getting the credit they deserve. My full-time supervisor, [Air Force] Maj. Lindsay Jones, has been extremely helpful and supportive during this whole endeavor. Like me, she's been on call 24/7. She'll bring us coffee and different treats to boost morale, and she's had no problem stepping in to field calls or deal with situations that need to be up-channeled to leadership. She's a physician's assistant, so she has the real-world knowledge and experience to deal with the new virus. 

Airmen put a person on a stretcher into a waiting helicopter in a field.
Medical Evacuation
Guardsmen from the 171st Air Refueling Wing Medical Group load a patient into a Blackhawk helicopter assigned to the 28th Infantry Division Pennsylvania Army National Guard during medical evacuation training at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, May 15, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph Sullivan, Pennsylvania Air National Guard
VIRIN: 190512-Z-ZZ999-1001C

Our full-time medical administration officer, [Air Force] Lt. Col. Joe Sullivan, has been kind enough to attend meetings on our behalf, talk to different Pennsylvania National Guard entities, and he buys us lunch when times are tough. I'm extremely fortunate and grateful to work with some of the most professional and yet kindest people I know.

How are part-time guardsmen helping your team? 

My whole team — both full-time and part-time — have been great and haven't missed a beat. When called upon, my part-time guardsmen have come in to help with contact tracing, attend meetings and answer questions from the base population. We've had individuals who used their annual training days, volunteered for state active-duty orders and used make-up drills — all to help out. We have a great team environment, and everyone is comfortable with one another. I've been very fortunate to have teammates like them and couldn't have made it through this without them.

Do you see a silver lining in this crisis, from a work perspective? 

Honestly, I believe the silver lining is getting to work with so many different people on base that we would not normally have any interaction with. We've been the hub for anything COVID-19-related and to be able to help the base as we have is not only rewarding but a great recruiting tool, too. For as busy as we've been, it's been extremely rewarding to talk to these individuals and shepherd them through a tough and confusing time in their lives.

When normalcy returns (relatively speaking), how do you think this will have changed the way you and your wing operate? 

I think that it will only make our wing function stronger. We've had subcommittee groups that have gotten together on Microsoft teams to go over rules and guidelines for base functions during the whole pandemic. Some of these are sections that have had limited to little interaction in regards to working together on a basewide undertaking such as this. Between that and our local medical partnerships that we've built in the private sector and community, I think once the dust settles we'll be able to look back on all of this and hold our heads high that we came through it together. 

A couple in winter jackets huddles together outside.
Jacob and Meghan
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob Linsenbigler of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard and his wife, Meghan, cuddle together for a photo while outside in the cold.
Photo By: Courtesy of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob Linsenbigler, Pennsylvania Air National Guard
VIRIN: 201229-O-ZZ999-110

What do you enjoy doing outside of the Guard? 

I feel like we've been in a pandemic for so long, I don't have any hobbies anymore! I've been a season ticket holder for the Pittsburgh Penguins for the past six years, and I've gotten to witness the team win the Stanley Cup two years in a row in 2016-2017. My family has a camp that we love going to about an hour and a half north of Pittsburgh. I'm sure in the next few months, with my daughter on the way, I'll enjoy sleeping a lot more when I get the chance, as well.

When COVID-19 has passed, what are you most looking forward to? 

I'm looking forward to public health being able to slide back under the radar! Before the pandemic, public health was the quiet entity of the base that most never realized had such a huge role to play. So, I'm looking forward to going back to being the quiet professionals … and I'd be lying if I didn't say not having to deal with the late-night and early-morning COVID-19 phone calls. Just like everyone else, I'm looking forward to life going back to as normal as it can be.