NEWARK, NJ --
Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic, retirees across the nation have been finding ways to help their neighbors and fellow citizens. For Ed Mills, Ed Otto, and Beth Utecht, the national crisis also represented an opportunity to serve their country.
Since March, all three have worked at FEMA’s Community Vaccination Center (CVC) in Newark, N.J. They serve in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Reemployed Annuitant Cadre, a group of 800 retirees who stand ready to support emergency response efforts across the country.
“Our cadre is comprised of individuals with a public service calling,” said Susan Turek, USACE Reemployed Annuitant Program Manager. “Even though they retired from government service, they still have the skills, knowledge, and desire to serve their country.”
Nationwide, 110 cadre team members have supported COVID-19 response efforts. Turek said it’s been a unique mission.
“This mission is different because we’re bringing people hope compared to the devastation that we typically encounter when responding to natural disasters. It’s also been the first opportunity for many of our team members to support a response.”
In Newark, where FEMA set up its CVC site in late March, more than 150,000 vaccines have been administered. Site logistics are complex, requiring extensive teamwork to maneuver thousands of people through the vaccination process each day.
“USACE team members have been involved in every single aspect of the logistical operation,” said Kristen Hodge, the CVC Deputy Site Supervisor for FEMA. “They’ve been invaluable.”
Hodge added that numerous federal, state, and local agencies—as well as members of the community and non-governmental organizations—were involved in site setup and operation.
Beth Utecht said observing the multi-agency effort has been an interesting experience.
“There are so many aspects to this, and they’ve gone smoothly because people have worked well together. It’s also been great for older folks to work with younger people as we are learning from each other,” she said.
Utecht retired in 2014 after 33 years of service at Garrison Dam in North Dakota.
“After I retired, I never thought that I could still use the skills I had learned during my career. This is a perfect role for those who previously worked in government. We’re able to use our skills to help people,” said Utecht.
Utecht, Mills, and Otto have been working at the Newark CVC site since March—often in 12-hour shifts with few days off.
But Mills said the long hours are worth it.
“I always felt we were doing something worthwhile and helping people get back on their feet,” said Mills, a civil engineer who retired from the USACE New England District in 2003. “People are often nervous when they arrive, so I try to reassure them. And I realize how important it is to get as many people vaccinated as possible.”
Mills has worked on numerous emergency responses across the country both during his USACE career and as a reemployed annuitant.
Ed Otto is newer to the team. He joined the cadre two years ago after a long public service career in the military and as a Department of Defense civilian. He also previously served with FEMA’s Reserve Program.
He had been seeking ways to help since the early days of the Pandemic.
“COVID has touched me personally in a number of ways. And I wanted to find ways to help in any way that I could, so earlier on I volunteered as part of a vaccine clinical trial and I donated blood with the antibodies,” said Otto. “But getting the chance to work for USACE and FEMA at the vaccination site has been a tremendous opportunity.”
Otto said he’s especially enjoyed making brief personal connections with people, particularly those who have physical disabilities.
“It’s just a good feeling – knowing that many of the people haven’t had the chance to be around family or even leave their house – they’re so grateful to get the vaccine,” he said.
About the FEMA Community Vaccination Center in Newark:
FEMA conducted a soft opening of the Community Vaccination Center in late March, but quickly ramped up to their current pace of approximately 6,000 vaccines per day. Numerous partner organizations have been involved in the operation including federal agencies, the U.S. military, New Jersey state agencies, Essex County, the City of Newark, AmeriCorps, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.