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NEWS | June 11, 2020

Call to Service: Army psychologist on the COVID-19 battlefront

By Thomas Brading Army News Service

He knew they weren’t calling to say hello. The Army Reserve Soldier expected to be mobilized after images of the USNS Comfort in New York Harbor were on news channels worldwide March 30.

But even as the country faced its worst pandemic in a century, Maj. Paul Harrigan didn’t know how fast his call to serve in the fight would be.

A day later, within 24 hours of the call, the Army psychologist joined an Army Reserve Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force, or UAMTF, inbound for Newark, New Jersey -- a few hundred miles from his home, and near the growing epicenter of the deadly virus.

Like many, the Buffalo native had been glued to the news for weeks. He listened to New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, deliver daily COVID-19-related remarks. He checked in on loved ones, and like many others, followed all safety precautions. But he wanted to do more -- and for Harrigan, a lifelong public servant, that came honest.

“As a Soldier -- or even a citizen -- it’s natural to want to be on the frontlines of the fight, or help in some way, especially as your country goes through a crisis,” Harrigan explained, and the UAMTF gave him his shot.

Designed specifically for the pandemic, UAMTFs are 85-person teams of doctors, nurses, combat medics, respiratory therapists, and ancillary personnel, tagged to help overwhelmed civilian hospitals on the battlefront of the novel coronavirus.

The Army doc, who usually serves with the 326th Medical Brigade, didn’t know what to expect. All he knew was the University Hospital in Newark was 150% filled and the Army was called in.

From day one, “[Harrigan] stood up and volunteered with everything,” said Maj. Erin Velazquez, 331-1 UAMTF commander. “In New Jersey, he quickly became the spokesperson for behavioral health. His insight helped us hit the ground running.”

“We didn’t know the exact mission, or for how long we’d be there,” Harrigan said, on his call to action. “I thought of World War II troops who deployed indefinitely, but this was something I could never imagine, yet found myself part of. I’m familiar with the flu of 1918, but to experience this -- I was just as shocked as the rest of the world.”

Harrigan didn’t just reflect on the bravery found during WWII, he also thought of his own unique military story. The story of a kid from New York, who found himself in the middle of an African civil war, then went on to serve his veteran community, and eventually commission as an Army officer.

His call to serve started long before COVID-19 and acquiring the tools he needed to help people in 2020 started nearly 30 years ago on the other side of the world.

Operation Sharp Edge

Before he was an Army major, Harrigan started his military career as a young Marine.

Harrigan shipped to Liberia in 1990, where he lived at sea for 110 days with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. At the time, the 19-year-old thought he was inbound for Russia -- not Liberia. He joked most of them had never heard of the African country before their arrival.

But the western African country, slightly larger than Pennsylvania, had a rich and colorful history that dated back hundreds of years. It was deep in its first civil war after unrest turned violent in 1989. Before the last shot was fired in 1997, the conflict claimed more than 200,000 lives in the nation of just 2.1 million people.

However, a conventional battle wasn’t the mission. The Marines were called in to help evacuate American diplomats and civilians from the U.S. Embassy on a peacekeeping mission, after violence spilled into the streets of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, and made fleeing too dangerous.

By day, they conducted non-combatant security operations. At night, all the peacekeepers could do was wait from their cramped quarters floating in the Atlantic, he said. Harrigan felt helpless from the ship. He still vividly remembers staring into the darkness -- lit only by speckled flashes of gunfire from the coast, and accompanied by the familiar loud pops from the muzzles.

“Thousands of people were perishing in the fight,” Harrigan said. “By the time we got to the embassy, the Liberians were begging for help. There wasn’t too much we could do at the time, because the decision was made that we wouldn’t get involved militarily.”

Fighting between the warring factions continued and resulted in many civilian deaths. Families were torn apart, and countless survivors fled the war-torn nation. Eventually, Harrigan and the Marines also left Liberia -- but part of the memory stuck with him for decades to come.

In-between service

Although a ceasefire came a few years later, by the end of the ‘90s, Liberia would find itself embroiled in a second civil war. By then, Harrigan was out of the Marines and a student at Niagara University -- just outside of Buffalo. He also volunteered his time with the local Vietnam veteran community.

“I was in awe of them,” he said. “They fought in battles I only read about, but when I looked around the room, I also recognized a few -- some were the dads of friends I grew up, and I never knew they were in the military.

“During Vietnam, they were in their early 20s -- at most -- and their stories helped me reflect on my service,” Harrigan said, like the war zones of Liberia, where the innocent people cried for his help.

“I didn’t have an answer for myself then,” he said, on the impact they had on him. “All I knew was there was still sorrow in my heart from that terrible civil war, and I carried it with me.”

He carried that sorrow to New York City, where he went on to earn a master’s degree in counseling from Columbia University. Now in his late 20s, Harrigan found some closure when he met a patient suffering from psychosis.

At least, that was her diagnosis on paper.

She was an African native, and looked “worn and drained out,” he said She was a refugee from the first Liberian civil war, where her brother and father were both killed. For all he knew, the midnight firefights in Liberia could have been where they died.

“As a young counselor, I was nervous about how much to disclose, because I didn’t want to interfere with the relationship, right?” Harrigan said. “But, I had to tell her I was there, too. I was one of the Marines at the embassy who the Liberians were crying out for.”

She remembered that moment, too, and smiled through her pain.

“It wasn’t psychosis, she just had terrible trauma caused by what happened” in Liberia, he said. After a few weeks, they helped each other, through a mutual friendship, and moved on from the war.

“It meant a lot to help at least one person’s recovery from that war,” Harrigan said, looking back on his early clinical days before going on to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Miami.

Around this time, he also accepted a job with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Buffalo, where he focuses on PTSD, military families, and other issues. After a 20-year hiatus in military service, he went back to the recruiter’s office.

Although he admitted this time around he was a little older and slower than he was as a Marine fresh out of high school, it didn’t slow down his will to serve.

Operation Inherent Resolve

By the time 2016 rolled around, an older and wiser Harrigan -- now an Army Reserve medical officer -- went on a nine-month deployment to support Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq. The mission brought together coalition forces to help train the Iraqi military in their fight against ISIS.

In Iraq, Harrigan was attached to a small medical unit that trekked all over, from Mosul to Baghdad, to Al Asad Airbase, to every outpost around the country.

At every stop, Harrigan and team made their rounds to meet everyone.

We became familiar faces for a lot of units,” Harrigan recalled. “A key part of behavioral health is working with chaplains and ministry teams located in all the remote posts, because no matter how remote, there is a chaplain around somewhere.”

In those days, then-Spc. George Berko -- today a New York City preacher -- was always by his side. Berko, Harrigan’s self-described battle buddy in Iraq, said, “[Harrigan] is an exceptional behavioral health provider, even in Iraq, his doors were always open.”

Over time, their walkabouts became a critical part of the behavioral health mission. It wasn’t just Soldiers, Harrigan said, but most of the service members, contractors, and Iraqis knew him by name.

Fast forward a few years, and more than 6,000 miles away, and shades of the Iraq deployment helped the doctor fight COVID-19.

New Jersey frontlines

As the officer-in-charge of the behavioral health team at the University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, Harrigan’s strategy was similar to his Iraq deployment -- simply put, he worked overtime and cared for everybody. At the hospital, he worked in multiple areas: emergency psychiatric, inpatient psychiatry, and with his old friends in the chaplains’ office.

But his top priority was simple: go where the caregivers were, he said, and care for them.

Harrigan “took the lead on checking in with every Soldier at the hospital,” Velazquez said. “This could have been a concern, because not every Soldier will seek out behavioral health. But, [Harrigan] was there to ensure everyone was OK.”

“We provided psychological support for the staff, who have gone through so much, and we worked closely with the associate director for nursing on staff resilience programs,” he said.

But his help stretched far beyond his job title. As every part of the hospital filled to the brink, Harrigan’s team didn’t shy away from anything, including the overcrowded morgue, that was further beyond capacity by the day, Harrigan explained.

“These people were loved by someone,” he said. They had special blankets, pictures, other items at their bedsides. Some were able to say goodbye on an iPad but died alone. Each of them deserved to be honored.

Like in Iraq, after a young British soldier died in a gunfight, Harrigan quickly organized a memorial for him, because he said, although death is hard “in a war, you have to get back in the fight.”

That was his call to service: to care for the caregivers. Whether it’s on the battlefield, with veterans of a previous generation, or at home, it’s a common thread his career has been defined by.