How the oldest Army medical unit teamed up against a new foe

By Spc. Samantha Hall | May 18, 2020

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. —

“We train for war,” said Col. Robert F. Howe II, commander of the U.S. Army’s 1st Medical Brigade out of Fort Hood, Texas. “But getting to support citizens in our homeland is special. Helping fellow citizens is what we’re here for.”

The “Silver Knights” are no strangers to conflict. The brigade is the oldest color-bearing medical unit in the United States Army, forged on the battlefields of World War I as they supported the first American units committed to that conflict more than 100 years ago.

Today, new enemies have brought new demands upon the storied unit, and they are once again on the cutting edge of response in the face of COVID-19.

The mission of the Silver Knights is to provide command and control, administrative assistance, and technical supervision of medical units used in support of operations around the world. The brigade also provides combat health support to forces, all while retaining the ability to deploy medical support packages on short notice.

In the past, these capabilities were used almost exclusively outside the United States; however, their assets have proven instrumental in the whole-of-nation response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Within 24 hours of notification, the Silver Knights sent forward medical personnel from the 9th Hospital Center and the 627th Hospital Center to New York City and Seattle, respectively.

“To be expeditionary in our own country is awesome-inspiring,” Howe said. “There’s something special and tangible in seeing the benefits of what you’re doing in your own backyard.”

In addition to other regions of the country, the 1st Medical Brigade is assigned to support the efforts of Task Force Center, the command and control element coordinating defense support of civil authorities in 15 states in the central U.S. ”I cannot say enough about the partnership that was developed between Colonel Howe and his organization and Task Force Center,” said Maj. Gen. Michael A. Stone, commander of Task Force Center. “Their expertise, professionalism and tireless work ensured that we were never late to need, and that the appropriate medial capabilities were delivered when needed, where needed. They really are a top-notch unit with excellent leadership.”

While flattered by the high praised heaped upon his unit, Col. Howe is quick to point out that it was a team-effort, involving a whole-of-government approach, “We’ve had amazing opportunities to coordinate and work closely with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Public Health Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and all sorts of other partners at various levels,” Howe said. “Everyone gets a voice, and everyone is very focused on defeating COVID.”

In addition to deploying traditional military assets like the 9th and 627th Hospital Centers, the Silver Knights had the opportunity to implement a military asset that didn’t exist at the beginning of the global pandemic: the Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force, a new concept in rapid-deployment medical assets provided by the U.S. Army Reserve. The Silver Knights’ deployment of the 801-2 UAMTF to Detroit is a prime example of the military’s focus and effort to defeat COVID-19, sometimes through the utilization of cutting-edge military formations. The medical expertise UAMFT units offer is in direct contrast to a combat support hospital, where a large component of the unit is support personnel. The UAMTF concept allows the Army to rapidly deploy a unit that is tailor fit to meet the specific requirements of the mission.

Lt. Col. Rob Wyatt, commander of the 801-2 UAMTF, explained that a UAMTF “… is better prepared for a situation where self-sufficient medical personnel are needed.”

“The unit came together, its people transitioned from civilians to active-duty Soldiers in a matter of days,” said Wyatt. “We have shown that when we’re needed, we can be there quickly and ready to provide our capabilities to the fight.”

The success of the UAMTF, but also of the military’s support of civil authorities in response to COVID-19, has not gone unnoticed, at least in the mind of Col. Howe, “I couldn’t be prouder to serve alongside these professional Soldiers from all walks of life, yet united for one purpose: to defeat COVID-19,” Howe said. “This is a defining moment in our history, and one of the most significant things I have supported in my 30 year Army career. Our Soldiers are completely focused on saving lives. There is nothing more noble than that.”