When Army spouse Marti Kubena received her COVID-19 vaccine March 11, she thought of her mom, Sharon Elaine Kiel Sebesta.
“For my mom. I’m in awe of the science behind the little bandaid on my arm today and wish desperately we could have gotten this for her in January,” she posted on her Facebook page.
Sebesta, 62, died from COVID-19 Jan. 24. Two months before she could have received the vaccine. That was all Marti could think about when she received her shot at Fort Campbell. Friends and Family responded to her post that they also thought of Sebesta while receiving their vaccine.
“You never expect something like this to come your way,” she said. “Everything we’ve been through with my mom, watching what she went through and being there on the day she died, you just really start to see the impact of why it’s so important to get vaccinated.”
As a result, Marti has spent the last several months promoting the vaccines with strong support from her husband, Capt. Bryan Kubena, 626th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
From a Soldier’s perspective, getting vaccinated also represents a commitment to the Army’s mission and values, Bryan said.
“Everyone joins the military for a different reason,” he said.
“But once we do join, we all agree that our duty is to serve the people of the United States,” he said. “More than that, I would say that I want to protect the ones I love, and the best way to do that right now is to get vaccinated.”
Bryan is the 626th BSB physician assistant and is currently preparing to join his unit in Orlando, Florida, to support the whole-of-government vaccination effort if their mission is extended. 626th BSB originally deployed to Orlando Feb. 26 in response to requests from the state of Florida and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The orders that came down for the vaccine support teams actually came down while I was on emergency leave the week my mother-in-law died,” he said. “I counseled several of the medics who were going to be on the mission, and I’ve given several COVID-19 classes since they left to the rest of the Soldiers here.”
3rd BCT’s physician assistant is currently filling in on the deployment, but Bryan is more than ready to take his Family’s fight against COVID-19 to the front lines.
“I think he was afraid at first to tell me about the deployment,” Marti said. “Not just that he wanted to go, but that he felt like he needed to be here for me because it was a few weeks out from my mom dying. There was one night that he was like, ‘I want to do this.’ And I said, ‘I want you to do this.’”
The two reached that agreement because anything they can do to help stamp out the virus is a way to honor Sebesta’s memory, Marti said.
COVID-19 hits home
Sebesta lived her life to care for her Family, and you didn’t have to be blood-related to be a part of it.
“We had all these kids in our house growing up because there were five siblings, and she was always babysitting to help out other people,” Marti said. “She took care of everybody, and if she couldn’t physically take care of you, she was going to donate money or send food. She was the backbone of the Family, and she kept everybody together.”
Sebesta continued playing that role in the pandemic’s early stages, traveling from her home in Texas to visit and check on the Kubenas around the time the first COVID-19 cases had been identified in the U.S. while she also sewed boxes full of homemade face masks.
Life for the Family remained normal until the morning of Dec. 29, 2020, when Sebesta woke up in her Texas home confused, disoriented and unable to communicate properly. Fortunately, one of Marti’s sisters who lived with her took Sebesta to a local hospital.
The trip to the emergency room ruled out COVID-19 or a stroke. Doctors found signs of a urinary tract infection they believed could be causing the symptoms. Sebesta remained in the hospital until Jan. 7 as the infection cleared, but her symptoms remained and more tests proved inconclusive.
“She was home for one day, and it took two of my sisters and one of their spouses to get her through that day,” Marti said. “She wasn’t able to tell anybody when she was hungry or needed to go to the bathroom, so it was kind of like having a big toddler at home. We quickly realized as a Family that this wasn’t going to work, so we called her primary care provider.”
After another round of stroke symptoms Jan. 8, Sebesta was admitted into a second hospital. Doctors still couldn’t identify the cause, and multiple COVID-19 tests came back negative.
“They did all these tests, and I honestly think there was some element of stroke involved that wasn’t showing up well on the MRI,” Bryan said. “She probably would have continued down that path. She was getting better lucidity but still having episodes. Then she contracted COVID-19.”
Marti’s youngest sister tested positive for COVID-19 Jan. 22 after an outbreak in her workplace, and she may have unknowingly exposed her mother to the virus while being asymptomatic. She was among multiple Family members the hospital had allowed inside to help care for Sebesta, who needed 24-hour attention.
“When my sister told all of us, ‘guys, I’m positive,’ my heart just stops,” Marti said. “She had been around mom that weekend, but she was wearing an N-95 mask the entire time, even while sleeping. The hospital was following all the protocols, she’d passed all screening measures and there was no reason to suspect she was infected.”
Sebesta tested positive for COVID-19 herself that same evening after showing signs of labored breathing. Even though a team of psychiatry, neurology and infectious disease specialists were already on hand, the virus’ effects proved devastating.
“As soon as she was infected, she spiraled immediately,” Bryan said. “She developed pneumonia, there were clots in her lungs and that was all she wrote, honestly.”
Less than a day after her diagnosis, Sebesta was moved to intensive care and her children were forced to make a heart-wrenching decision.
The doctor said there was already permanent scarring in Sebesta’s lungs, and going on a ventilator meant she’d likely never come off. That helped the Family choose not to keep her on life support, and on Jan. 24, Marti and two of her siblings went to the hospital to say goodbye.
“You feel like you’re at a zoo, but you’re watching your mom,” she said of the experience that involved FaceTime and seeing her mother through a glass window. “And she was just normal enough that you think she can’t be dying. She was sitting up, she was talking – granted, she was hallucinating – but she’s talking.”
But even though she looked like she always had, her children knew things were different.
“You just say the things you need to say, and all you can do is tell her you love her,” Marti said. “I don’t think she really understood that she was dying of COVID-19, and that was hard. Eventually, the phone call ends because there’s nothing really left to say. Her last words to us were ‘I love you all so much,’ which was as good as it could be.”
Sebesta died within hours of the visit, and doctors never identified the comorbidity that put her in the hospital to begin with. The Family continues grappling with the emotional aftermath and hopes to have a funeral next year to provide some sense of closure.
Marti said her mother’s consideration for others defined her response to the COVID-19 pandemic and she wants to see others strive for those same standards.
“She was going out of her way to be safe,” she said. “It didn’t matter that she was doing everything right, it didn’t matter that her kids were doing everything right, it still found its way to her.”
Taking the steps to get vaccinated is one of many ways the Kubenas are working to fight off the pandemic to keep their story from repeating.
“As much as (Bryan) was trying to help us and my mother from a distance, he couldn’t save her,” Marti said. “But by giving this vaccine, educating people and looking out for their health, he has the ability to make sure other Families don’t go through exactly what we’ve been through, and there’s nothing more that anybody in the world can do to make me feel better.”
Within 12 hours of attending the first Fort Campbell Spouse Employment Center Open Air Hiring Fair in October, Brittany Ippolito was on her way to a new job.
She had already met with Spouse Employment Center, or SEC, counselors to talk about career possibilities and have her resume critiqued. She even volunteered to man a registration table at the outdoor job fair, so when a recruiter caught her attention, she had her resume ready.
“It was super helpful,” Ippolito said.
SEC staff are hoping for the same kind of connections between employers and job seekers at the second Open Air Hiring Fair, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. April 29, in the parking lot between the SEC office and Transition Assistance Program on Screaming Eagle Boulevard.
At least 25 employers will be at the outdoor job fair, said Holly Nusom, SEC employment services counselor.
“They are actively hiring, so if you’re ready to work, you don’t want to miss the job fair,” Nusom said. “We encourage participants to bring a resume, one they are willing to share with employers, and be ready to talk about themselves and their skills.”
Outdoors but face-to-face
Patrice Hamilton, SEC employment services counselor, said the job fair will again be outdoors to allow for social distancing. All participants must wear face masks in accordance with COVID-19 safety precautions.
“I know because of COVID-19, it has been difficult for some employers to have direct contact with folks who are looking for jobs,” Hamilton said. “COVID protocols will still be in place. Outside just gives us a little bit of flexibility to offer the opportunity. If we were inside, we would be more limited and there would be fewer people we could support. Being outside will also allow us to have more employers and see more attendees.”
Information about prospective employers will be posted to the Fort Campbell SEC Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/SpouseEmploymentFortCampbell) as the date draws closer and participants are confirmed. In the meantime, spouses looking for help can find assistance by calling the SEC at 270-412-1720 and scheduling an appointment.
The Open Air Hiring Fair is hosted by the SEC but is also open to transitioning Soldiers and veterans.
Coached to success
Ippolito said when she first arrived at Fort Campbell, she was focused on finding a job on the installation or with a local school, but she wasn’t aware of the many opportunities with other employers until meeting with SEC job counselors. She also learned how to tailor her resume for different types of careers, including federal jobs.
“My resume definitely needed some work and I scheduled an appointment to come in and have it looked over,” she said. “That really helped me get the position I have now.”
Ippolito’s resume was ready when she met someone recruiting for school positions during the October job fair and it was enough to land her a job as an instructional assistant for preschoolers with Pembroke Elementary School, in Pembroke, Kentucky.
Because her child’s school switched to remote learning in the fall, Ippolito didn’t start her new job until February but the connection she made was strong enough to pay off.
Spouses helping spouses
Nusom and Hamilton are both eager to share their expertise with other military spouses. They both have husbands who are stationed at Fort Campbell and are familiar with the struggle Army spouses often face from having to relocate often.
“There are some things individuals can do to prepare ahead of time,” Nusom said. “We are available to provide resume review assistance. We can help with practicing an elevator pitch and we can help attendees decide what to wear to the event, because we do recommend they dress for success and be ready if there is a potential on-the-spot interview.”
The SEC, located at 5662 Screaming Eagle Blvd., is next to the Transition Assistance Program, and across the streets from Burger King. Appointments can be made by calling 270-412-1720. Volunteers also are needed.
Volunteering at the job fair may make helpers feel more comfortable in that setting and would provide the opportunity to be resourceful while aiding the SEC, Nusom said.
“They can also engage with those employers while they are here,” she said.
Nusom said employers have been enthusiastic about the opportunity to tap into the spouse employment pool and transitioning service member talent.
“COVID has definitely made things challenging but a lot of local employers are hiring and they want to hire spouses and veterans,” she said. “Spouse employment is one of the Army quality-of-life initiatives and Fort Campbell has taken that very seriously.”
A rain date for the job fair has been scheduled for May 6 in case of inclement weather.
Many Soldiers’ first impressions of military police officers come during a traffic stop or an incident at the barracks. Fort Campbell is looking to change that culture through positive interactions that build relationships.
Soldiers from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), hosted a joint physical training exercise April 9 with 716th Military Police Battalion at Fryar Stadium.
The idea grew out of a leadership professional development session with Maj. Gen. Rich Johnson, commanding general, First Army Division West, Fort Hood, Texas.
“It made me think of the relationship that infantrymen have with the MPs, and a lot of the interactions in the barracks aren’t always positive,” said Maj. David Provencher, executive officer, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd BCT.
That led Provencher to reach out to 716th MP Bn. about arranging joint PT hours to strengthen relationships between units. Lt. Col. Chris Church, commander, 716th MP Bn., chose the Soldiers of 218th Military Police Company to participate in a series of ultimate football games.
“We mixed up the teams so it’s not infantry versus MP, because we definitely wanted to avoid that,” Provencher said. “I think it was a little stale in the beginning because when it’s your first time in any situation you don’t necessarily know what to expect, but it turned out really well.”
Fort Campbell’s MPs have joined in PT sessions with other organizations before, but it was the first time in recent memory they coordinated with 3rd BCT to do so, Barnett said.
“I think it’s important, not just between MPs and infantry, but for all Soldiers,” he said. “It creates esprit de corps between the units and within the Army, and it lets them let loose for a little bit and go out there and have fun. You’re still doing an Army activity, but in a fun and new way.”
Soldiers broke out into teams and spread across the field ready for competition, working together and becoming familiar with one another in the process.
“I think it went well,” said Sgt. Thomas Vossman, 3-187th Inf. Regt. “There’s a huge stigma, if you will, between infantry and MPs and always has been. MPs are always getting at us and we’re getting at them, so it’s good to show each other that we’re not so bad and do a little bonding.”
Spending time together helps infantrymen relate to MPs as fellow Soldiers, said Lt. Col Ed. Arntson, battalion commander, 3-187th Inf. Regt.
“Hopefully, some of our Soldiers get an appreciation for what (these) guys have to do,” Arntson said. “They have a mission, and it’s different than the one we have, but they’re here to help keep Fort Campbell safe and orderly for everyone.”
With 218th MP Co. slated to support 3rd BCT during the next Joint Readiness Training Center rotation at Fort Polk, Louisiana, the exercise also served to establish a strong partnership ahead of time.
“This is definitely good for unit cohesion,” said Spc. Franklin Jacob, 218th MP Co. “If we bond out here, once we go to JRTC or anything like that, our units will work better together.”
Lieutenant Colonel Chris Church, commander, 716th MP Bn., welcomed the chance to take part because of the benefits for the battalion and Fort Campbell as a whole.
“We’re really happy to have the opportunity to do this,” Church said. “As a tenant unit, we’re not really as integrated into the division as we’d like to be, but we support all the units here every day.”
Moving forward, officers of 3rd BCT and 716th MP Bn. are interested in hosting more joint PT exercises and expanding them to include other units.
“Relationships are important, and any time you can establish connective tissue between organizations on post that may support one another in the future helps,” Provencher said. “This is a positive thing – we’re not only helping create that community policing mindset, but establishing the relationship early. We have to work together, and we’re better for it.”