JACKSONVILLE, Fla — The goal at Gateway Mall Vaccination Site in Jacksonville is to vaccinate as many people as possible. The site will hit 60,000 vaccinations this week.
You’ll notice the women and men in uniform are administering the vaccines and keeping the facility sanitized.
Before you can go inside at 7 a.m. to get vaccinated, busses of Navy servicemembers arrive. They have done so every morning for the past month and for the foreseeable future.
Some are local. Some are from across the country deployed to Jacksonville to help vaccinate as many people as possible.
“I am amazed with how many people I see come through with smiles on their face knowing that they can help us internationally... really this is more than the US... this is all over the world," said Lt. Tomeka McDonald, a U.S. Navy registered nurse.
The vaccine process is quick so you may have just a few minutes of interaction with a Navy nurse, but those moments are what make this one of the most meaningful deployments for McDonald.
"They feel like they’re making a mark... an impact on us so that we can get back to some time of normalization," McDonald said.
This is her dream come true. As a teen, she says she was homeless for a period of time and didn’t graduate high school, but she was inspired by a registered nurse who took care of her great-grandmother.
McDonald got her GED and enlisted. 20 years later, she’s vaccinating Jacksonville alongside 20-year-old hospital corpsmen Viani Torres who joined the Navy right as the coronavirus was spreading. Torres calls this deployment a privilege.
“I’ve met tons of wonderful people and I’ve seen miracles happen for them every day," Torres said. "They really do see this as their new light at the end of the tunnel.”
For some, this is their way of healing.
“We are here until the mission is complete," said Petty Officer Hunter Bourque.
Bourque calls Jacksonville home, but he is currently stationed in Washington state. His deployment brought him closer to family and his community.
"My grandmother passed away from COVID back in December," Bourque said. "Being back here in my hometown, being able to help somebody else’s grandmother, daughter, father, whatever it’s just nice knowing I’m doing whatever I can.”
Bourque works behind the scenes to keep everything running smoothly. There are about 140 total U.S. Navy servicemembers who were deployed to Gateway.