By Warren Marlow
| First Army | May 12, 2020
Capt. Kevin Braafladt of the First Army United States Army Reserve Support Command takes part in the unit's Virtual Battle Assembly. (Photo by Warren Marlow)
The threat of COVID-19, otherwise known as the coronavirus, has changed common practices within the Army. Many new requirements have been implemented to protect Soldiers, such as social distancing, the wearing of masks, and restrictions on travel. Army Reserve units, most specifically those training at First Army, have not been immune to the shift, and have had to become creative maintaining readiness while keeping Army Reserve Soldiers safe.
Army Reserve Soldiers are traditionally known to serve one weekend a month, two weeks a year. However, First Army’s Support Command conducts their training slightly differently. The Soldiers of the Command usually attend “Battle Assembly” for one week each quarter, serving in their sections and catching up on mission essential readiness tasks.
However, with the restrictions in place, the unit recently held a virtual battle assembly, or VBA, from April 27th through May 2nd.
Capt. Kevin Braafladt serves as the First Army historian and is pursuing a master’s degree in history. As a platoon leader with the First Army USAR Support Command, he felt he lived history first-hand by participating in the unit’s virtual battle assembly.
“As far as I’ve been able to understand, this has never been done,” he said. “It’s all in the effort to keep Soldiers safe and, at the same time, not affect readiness.”
Braafladt and about 80 other Support Command members conducted physical training, completed online courses, and performed Directorate support, all without coming to Rock Island Arsenal, Ill., where unit battle assemblies are normally held.
The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the change.
“Because of the risk of the coronavirus, we have to keep our Soldiers safe,” said 1st Sgt. Dave Huskey, the Support Command’s senior enlisted Soldier.
Once Support Command leaders decided to hold a virtual battle assembly, they worked to ensure its success. Prior to the Virtual Assembly, leaders notified every Soldier of the training schedule and the agenda for the week, Huskey said. The senior noncommissioned officer or officer-in-charge from each First Army directorate created a work plan from each of those directorates, which the Soldiers could work on from home. Leaders then passed down the tasks from the section NCOICs to the Support Command Soldiers.
Braafladt spent his week writing articles about, fittingly enough, the 1918 influenza pandemic, as well as handling other duties.
“I’ve been working on archiving and documenting First Army’s history, collecting different accounts about the VBA and what First Army is doing,” he said. “I’ve also done online training and am working on my Captain’s Career Course.”
He credited unit members with stepping up to the challenge.
“The Support Command Soldiers have been really responsive, have been understanding about the changes, and are driving forward with the mission and completing training,” he said.
Huskey related that having an established battle rhythm helped things go smoothly.
“The day starts with physical fitness for two hours, then Soldiers check in, either verbally, with a text, or an e-mail to their section leaders, and the section leaders roll up those numbers and report them to the full-time staff,” he said.
Leaders set aside time for administrative tasks, online training, and directorate support. Schedules could be adjusted to fit the needs of the directorates, but Huskey said everyone put in a productive day.
“The times aren’t as important as the work getting done,” said Huskey.
With the VBA concept new to everyone, Huskey said coordination was key.
“We had to get it out to everybody that this is what’s going to happen and get them some kind of work capability,” he said. “We had several meetings with section leaders, the full-time staff and the command team to devise work plans and ensure each Soldier knew what they would be doing and what the expectations were.”
Throughout the week, Support Command members of all ranks kept in regular touch with each other, according to Sgt. 1st Class Alyson Mackesey, a Support Command platoon sergeant.
“We have the Soldiers check in and make sure we have accountability and make sure they are following their work plan, and we do a daily videoconference with the command team,” she said.
This regular communication allowed Mackesey to solve problems that arose. For example, Mackesey said that for Soldiers who had limited technology capabilities, they came up with alternate plans, such as giving them an NCO study guide and other resources to read up on so they are actively engaged.
As to her personal duties, Mackesey reports that she completed tasks that she needed to do for her directorate, as well as online classes.
The physical training, meanwhile, was business as usual for her.
“I do PT almost every day anyway,” she said. “My husband and I are part-owners of a gymnastics academy, we coach there, and work there full-time.”
The concept of the Virtual Battle Assembly may have been new, but the concept of readiness endured even in a virtual world. Individual accountability, communication, and physical fitness all were crucial to collective success, with one new addition. Huskey thought the experience made clear that the ability to connect virtually is crucial to success in the modern world.
“Down to every Soldier, there needs to be an emphasis on making sure that no matter where you go, you’ve got a card reader or a way to do Army business.”