Born and raised in Colorado, Laura Richardson aspired to be an Army pilot. Now she is running the Pentagon's ground war against the coronavirus.
The lieutenant general has troops deployed from New York City to Seattle battling an infectious disease that she simply calls "the enemy." She's trying to get ahead of the virus by searching for emerging hot spots.
"It's about how the enemy adapts," said Richardson, who oversees Northern Command's land forces with the Texas-based U.S. Army North.
Richardson has taken on enemies before as commander of a helicopter battalion in Iraq and as a general in Afghanistan.
“I think quite honestly it requires all of the same attributes you have to exhibit,” she said of the cornonavirus. “You have to think quickly on your feet … but it is a much different enemy than we are used to training against.”
Richardson, a graduate of Northglenn High School began training for her Army duties long before she put on the uniform with private pilot training at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Jefferson County.
“I scared myself to death a few times,” she said of those early lessons.
She started college at Regis and finished up at Metro State where she joined ROTC. During a career at the controls of Black Hawk helicopters, she rose through the ranks.
She took command of Army North last year, just in time for hurricane season. It’s the only Army command that works on assisting local agencies in disasters.
The 600 troops and 300 civilians in her headquarters work year-round to plan for “the worst-case day that could happen to this nation,” she said.
Richardson has moved swiftly to send troops to help civilian authorities tackle coronavirus outbreaks.
Last month, she ordered Fort Carson’s 627th Hospital Center to Seattle where it built a makeshift hospital at a football stadium in case civilian hospitals became overwhelmed.
Because authorities in Washington state ordered residents to stay home, spread of the virus slowed, and hospitals were never pushed to the brink. Now the Fort Carson soldiers are tearing down the temporary hospital and preparing to head elsewhere to fight the virus.
“It is a much better case to be there on time and not be needed,” she said.
The Army and Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base are working on ways to better determine where help is needed. The virus has befuddled computer models thus far, largely thanks to unprecedented quarantine measures that have most Americans staying home.
But there is good news.
“All the things that CDC is recommending people do are working,” Richardson said. “It helped give hope that coronavirus can be dealt with.”
Things aren’t as sunny elsewhere, she said. More than 1,000 troops under Richardson are working in New York City, where a convention center has been converted into a coronavirus ward.
The Javits Center had more than 250 patients over the weekend, and could house hundreds more.
Richardson said morale is high among the troops there.
“They are so excited,” she said. “Normally we are having to go away to do our main mission, now we are getting to do it in the homeland.”
The medical troops are a key focus for Richardson, but they aren’t the only focus. She had hundreds of troops managing logistics and supply, planning the coronavirus campaign and training in case more military help is needed.
It’s a lot like combat overseas, she said.
“The operators get the glory, but it comes down to the logistics at the end of the day,” she said.
But there are unfamiliar and troubling aspects of the coronavirus for which Richardson had no experience.
She’s used to heading overseas to worry about her troops on the battlefield, and not having to think much about the vulnerabilities of her family in the U.S.
Amid the virus, she’s found herself lecturing her father, Northglenn physician Darwin Strickland, about the necessity of staying home.
“I am having to take care of them from far away,” she said.