Tennessee National Guard member dies of COVID in Texas

By: - September 29, 2021 5:00 am
Gov. Bill Lee addressing members of the Tennessee National Guard. (Photo: tn.gov)

Gov. Bill Lee addressing members of the Tennessee National Guard while on a trip to the Texas-Mexico border in July. (Photo: tn.gov)

At least one Tennessee National Guard member has died “due to symptoms presumed to be related to COVID-19,” a Tennessee National Guard spokesman confirmed last week.

A high-ranking legislator said he was unaware of the death and, also, unaware of any other state legislators who knew of the Guardsman’s death.

“There’s not been a great deal of details about Guard deployments,” state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville and State Senate Minority leader, said.

The Tennessee National Guard confirmed last week that a guardsman had died of symptoms “presumed to be related to COVID-19.”

Reports said it was a 56-year-old guardsman, attached to Tennessee Joint Task Force Headquarters who died in San Antonio, Texas, which is the same location as Ft. Sam Houston, headquarters for Army Medical Command.

Lt. Col. Darrin Haas, spokesman for the Tennessee National Guard, said the service member was “not in a duty status” at the time of death, so there would be no further information released.

The Guardsman reportedly died one month ago on Aug. 27. 

“Anytime we lose a Tennessee Guardsman, it is a tragedy,” Haas wrote in a statement. “Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with the service member’s family.”

Haas said he does not have authority to release release any other information concerning COVID-19 statistics for the Tennessee National Guard, including numbers on how many guard members are vaccinated or unvaccinated, if there were any other Guard members who have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in February 2020 or how many Guard members have tested positive and recovered since the start of the pandemic.

A spokesman for the Tennessee National Guard confirmed a 56-year-old member died of “symptoms presumed to be related to COVID-19” but would give no other information. State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said the incident points to a disconnect between the Lee administration and the public on COVID issue and a lack of transparency.

Since the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 began almost two months ago, Tennessee National Guard troops have been called to assist multiple healthcare systems across the state who have seen patients swarming emergency rooms.

A high majority of those patients have been unvaccinated.

The Tennessee National Guard reported last week that there are now 310 soldiers and airmen with the Tennessee National Guard helping at 24 hospitals and eight monoclonal infusion centers across the state.

Haas said any questions regarding numbers would have to be answered by the National Guard office in Washington D.C. When contacted, a spokesman for the Washington D.C. office said questions concerning Tennessee troops would have to be answered by the Tennessee National Guard.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s office also declined comment, relaying questions to the National Guard spokesman.

State Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, who chairs the Senate State and Local Government Committee that oversees the budget for the Tennessee National Guard, also did not return several calls seeking comment.

Yarbro said that he felt it was a problem that state legislators were not being informed about the death of a Tennessee National Guard soldier.

“Without question,” he said.

Yarbro said that he felt there had been a constant disconnect with the administration regarding COVID-19 and a lack of transparency. He said there has not been bipartisan support and the administration has been “slow or missing in action” with providing information to the legislative branch or the public.

Yarbro said the public and legislature should have more information about what is going on with those troops who are being sent into hospitals and medical centers.

“Our National Guard has repeatedly responded to going into harm’s way,” he said.

He said he has not heard any answers about how many soldiers and airmen may have gotten sick or been hospitalized due to COVID-19, if vaccinations are working or if there are any other deaths related to the virus.

“I think those are very important questions to ask and be made available, but I’m not aware right now,” he said. “I don’t think the administration has made that available.”


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Cliff Hightower
Cliff Hightower

Cliff Hightower is an award-winning journalist from East Tennessee. He is a former winner of the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalist’s Golden Press Card Award in investigative journalism. Cliff has previously worked at the Knoxville News-Sentinel, The Tampa Tribune and the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He has more than two decades experience and currently works as news editor for an East Tennessee newspaper.