Meet 3 Northeast Indiana veterans using their military experience to fight COVID-19

While medical training has been critical for most healthcare workers fighting COVID-19, military training has also proven helpful for three Northeast Indiana residents with roles in a local health system.  


Military veterans Mike Eckroth, Nathan Milliman, and Donna Van Vlerah all work in Parkview Health’s Incident Command Center—a central location coordinating the system’s pandemic response. Their common approach to obstacles, as well as their camaraderie, have aided them in their months-long effort. 


Mike Eckroth enlisted in the U.S. Army after college and served for eight years, working in the intelligence field. During his service, he met his wife, Melissa, who is also an Army veteran and native of Fort Wayne. After active duty, they moved back to the city to be closer to her family. 


Eckroth joined Parkview Health in 2012 as Deputy Chief of Police. He transitioned into his current role as Director of Emergency Management in March of 2019.


“I felt like the skillset in this role matched up very well to the skills I used in the Army,” he says. Planning, preparedness, crisis management and mission execution are all skills he uses regularly, if not daily.


In the military, Eckroth explains, everyone is trained to handle rapid change, “to identify and remove barriers rather than panic.”


“One of the things I try to bring to this role is order out of chaos,” he says. “We try to facilitate coordination across the organization and get everyone pointed in a unified direction to be successful.”

Though dozens of Parkview leaders have had active roles in the command center, the veterans have a shared background that has proven beneficial.


Nathan Milliman joined the U.S. Air Force after high school and served six years of active duty with the First Special Operational Wing in the Florida panhandle. His work was very similar to what he’s doing today as a Disaster Preparedness Coordinator for Parkview, “but with the addition of chemical warfare and hazardous materials,” he says, referring to his time as an Emergency Management Technician for the Air Force.


Wanting to live near home after his duty ended, Milliman worked in emergency management for South Bend’s Beacon Health System before joining Parkview in February of 2020.


“Just in time for a global pandemic,” he says.


But it’s all a part of the job, he adds, crediting his military experience for preparing him.


“It’s given me a great foundation of knowledge, as well as confidence and courage to be able to step into a new role,” Milliman says. “Setting up a command center with the world-class teammates we have here at Parkview was second nature.”


Donna Van Vlerah joined the U.S. Marine Corps after college and served for 20 years as a Logistics Officer. She says that her role as a Marine was the same as today, working as Senior Vice President of the Support Division for Parkview Health.


The Support Division at Parkview includes “all the things that make an infrastructure run,” she says.


When describing her work, Van Vlerah quotes a military saying that has been attributed to Gen. Robert Hilliard Barrow: “Amateurs talk strategy; professionals study logistics.”


“It’s the logistics that enable operations,” she explains. “Where do you need it? How much? How’s it being used? You need a process to make sure you have everything in the right place at the right time for the right people.”


Discussing the role of the command center at Parkview, she says, “COVID is like a military campaign. It’s the overarching issue in duration and scope. Within that, you’ve got a bunch of battles. You’ve got to win the battles to win the campaign …. And it’s the command center’s job to orchestrate all the people and processes to move at the same time in the same direction in order to be successful.”


Though dozens of Parkview leaders have had active roles in the command center, the veterans have a shared background that has proven beneficial.


Van Vlerah says their work today is a direct return on the training, education, and experience they received from the military.


“The investment that the American public made in us is being repaid,” she says.


Eckroth agrees, and adds that military experience isn’t required to be successful in battling the pandemic. Parkview co-workers in all roles, from all backgrounds, have stepped up in tremendous ways in 2020.


“It’s not until you’re in a crisis that a lot of people can realize their full potential,” Eckroth says. “Across the organization, we watched people do things they didn’t think they were capable of.”

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