FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif –
Army Soldiers are known for their resilience and adaptability and the Army Reserve showed its own strength and flexibility when it conducted Operation Ready Warrior 20-1 a readiness training exercise Sept. 12-25, 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Army Reserve implemented a two-phase approach in July to enhance Soldier and unit readiness in preparation for a post COVID-19 environment.
Phase I began in August with the “Ready Warrior,” proof of concept, field training exercise, at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. Now, the Army Reserve’s 84th Training Command and 91st Training Division has conducted the second “Ready Warrior,” at FHL.
“The goal of Operation Ready Warrior is to provide an opportunity to U.S. Army Reserve units to participate in platform provided training in a COVID-19 aware environment,” said Lt. Col. Roger G. Moss, 1st Operations Brigade, S3, 91st Training Division, 84th Training Command. “The numerous training activities allow Soldier's the opportunity to hone skills that have diminished over the past several months due to virtual battle assemblies and online training. Training has been primarily focused on readiness and deployability enhancing events.”
ORW 20-1 is the first large scale training and readiness military exercise since the Department of Defense ordered all military members to “stop movement,” March 13, 2020, to protect the force.
“It was kind of a short timeframe,” said Col. Anthony Fadell, the 91st TD surgeon. But, “basically from the very get go, it was ‘how do we get back to training in a COVID environment?”
ORW 20-1 planners spent three to four weeks creating policy for COVID mitigation and what kind of training could be provided in that environment, he added.
Wear the mask, wash the hands and be aware of the six feet social distance are the three key components of COVID-19 mitigation, Faddell said. During the summer, the PGA Tour, the NHL, the WNBA and the NBA all restarted their 2020 professional sports’ seasons in COVID-19 free “bubbles.” So, ORW 20-1 created their own COVID-19 free “bubble” to conduct a large scale military safely and effectively.
The 91st TD adopted a COVID-19 mitigation approach that configured the training audience into small training groups or “bubbles” within “bubbles,” to limit exposure and reduced the opportunity for community spread, according to Moss. Over 1,000 Soldiers, civilians and contractors tested negative for COVID-19 via an asymptomatic nasal swab before entering the ORW 20-1 “bubble.”
“We wanted them to be in their ‘bubbles’ right away,” Faddell said.
“Each bubble is comprised of ten Soldiers from one training unit and then five bubbles make up a cohort,” said, Sgt. 1st Class Mary Mills, an observer coach/trainer with the 3rd Battalion, 290th Regiment, 91st Training Division.
The cohort travels and functions together as a COVID-19 mitigation strategy, said Mills.
Mills was selected to be a part of the ORW 20-1 OCT team because of her experience at Fort McCoy, Wis., in August, during the first “Ready Warrior” exercise, where the Army Reserve COVID-19 mitigation measures were first tested with a smaller training audience. “They usually come from the same unit and they’re in the same area,” she added.
“They sleep, train and fight together,” Mills said. “So if one Soldier in a ‘bubble’ began to exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, this limits potential spread to only fifty personnel that would be inside that cohort.”
“Since they don’t interact with other cohorts,” it would limit the potential spread to only fifty personnel, said Mills.
If somebody did test positive, those “bubbles,” were then isolated or quarantined, according to Faddell.
All participants strictly adhered to state and federal COVID-19 mitigation guidelines.
They were required to wear protective face masks or a baklava and to keep their six foot distance, except once they start exertion training according to Faddell.
Soldiers are allowed to take the mask away during exertion training, only, Faddell said. “As soon as the exertion is completed, we put the mask back on,” he said. “We’re trying to mitigate as much risk as we can. You gotta find the fine balance, where you’re able to execute and achieve the goal with the minimal amount of risk possible.”
“We’ve had four positives (COVID-19 tests) here at Fort Hunter Liggett,” Faddell said.
“Our positivity rate’s been low,” Faddell said, who is an oncologist at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in his civilian career. “We’ve been very fortunate to have the low numbers we’ve had.
Preexecution testing,” allowed us to know who had it and try to prevent it from being spread,” Faddell said. “I think it gives the Soldiers, myself included, confidence that if everyone’s getting screened, that’s the best prevention we can have, is to know who has it.
There was a COVID isolation and quarantine team, a contact tracing team, and “we’ve had preventive med(icine) involved,” said Faddell. The Soldiers who tested positive for COVID-19 during initial reception were all put into isolation, immediately.
There was no community spread or transmission of COVID-19 during ORW 20-1, said Maj. Kimberly Moore, officer in charge of preventative medicine and contact tracing, 2nd Medical Brigade, 807th Medical Command Deployment Support, 807th Division.
The more than 50 Soldiers that tested negative for COVID-19, but had possible exposure to the Soldiers, who had tested positive, were quarantined for 14 days, per the ORW 20-1 contact tracing guidelines, which follow the CDC protocols, said Moore.
Each Soldier in isolation or quarantine was monitored daily with temperature checks. They had access to social distanced and outdoor exercise time; completed annual mandatory online training on Army issued laptops, tablets or both and had 24/7 Army Chaplain support services, she added.
The Soldiers who tested positive were in isolation for 10 days. They got released for either of two scenarios: 10 days since their positive COVID-19 test result and showed no symptoms or if they had exhibited symptoms, they also had to wait 10 days and had to show no symptoms and no high-temperature for more than 24 hours, prior to release from isolation and were then sent home, Moore said.
“COVID-19 has been a planning consideration from the beginning,” Moss said. “Through careful planning and coordination with the medical team, COVID mitigations have presented minimal training challenges. COVID has been identified during the exercise among the training audience, it has had very little impact due to the small training elements and aggressive contact tracing.
"The ability of the U.S. Army Reserve to train and function in a COVID restrictive environment is crucial to maintaining individual readiness and deployability,” said Moss.
The training offered at ORW 20-1 has provided an opportunity for units to travel to Fort Hunter Liggett and utilize the resources provided to train and improve readiness levels that have decreased over the past several months as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, Moss added.
“We first heard about it (ORW 20-1) during the pandemic, when everything was shut down,” Spc. Erik Crisanto, a motor transportation operator with the 730th Transportation Company, 420th Battalion, 311th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), said. “It may take place or it may not. We started getting our minds ready.”
The 84th Training Command and the 91st Training Division’s priority is to provide a safe, effective training environment to maintain a capable, combat-ready, lethal force in a COVID-19 constrained environment.
“Units are often challenged to conduct weapons ranges, ACFT (Army Combat Fitness Test) and Army Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills without external assistance,” Moss said. “This platform training provides that assistance as well as offers training that units rarely receive.”
ORW 20-1’s training audience used multiple training lanes and platforms including: the virtual Joint Light Tactical Vehicle trainer, a Humvee virtual warrior skills trainer, land navigation, combat casualty care, counter-IED (improvised explosive device), counter-UAS (unmanned aircraft system) training, CBRN (Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear) operations training, ACFT tester certification and how to react to enemy fire.
“It’s been pretty consistent,” said Crisanto, “everyday something new, it’s a good refresher especially for us, Reserve Soldiers who don’t do this all the time. It’s definitely good training.”
There was even a new M26-Modular Accessory Shotgun System qualification range, an M9 pop-up target range, a M4/M16 individual weapon qualification range, Biometrics’ training along with virtual battle space 3 classroom training. Another challenge that had to be overcome at ORW 20-1 was the Dolan wildfire, which was burning northwest and west of FHL as training began.
ORW 20-1 Exercise Control established lines of communication with the post command and range control in order to receive the latest updates on the fires impact on FHL, said Master Sgt. Michael Nope the Non-Commissioned Officer in charge of operations, 91st TD, 84th TC.
The wildfires have presented a number of challenges that were addressed with assistance from Fort Hunter Liggett Garrison,” said Moss.
“We were informed when and where controlled burns would be and what the risk for FHL would be at any given time,” Nope said.
“There was a concern that we would need to evacuate due to the fire approaching Fort Hunter Liggett,” said Nope.
An evacuation plan was quickly developed, Nope said, but was not needed, as the Dolan wildfire was steadily contained by firefighters during ORW 20-1.
“The wildfires have also produced heavy smoke which at times required interruptions to training,” said Nope.
ORW 20-1 Exercise Control used a hand-held Air Quality Index sensor and monitored two satellite readings for comparison, AQI is a reading of the hazardous gases and particulates that are in the air and AQI standards are set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The smoke conditions are monitored hourly,” Nope said. “This enables the commander to make timely decisions for the safety of all ORW (20-1) participants and support elements.”
“The AQI readings at the exercise have ranged from good to hazardous, he added. When the AQI was lower than 150, outdoor training continued, with caution.
There were hourly readings in each of our training areas to maintain awareness and protect Soldiers during training, said Moss.
“As a result of the diminishing air quality early on, the installation provided numerous buildings on FHL to provide additional respiratory protection for the training units,” said Moss. “We maximized indoor training opportunities during poor air quality days. When air quality improved, we incrementally opened outdoor activities until all activities were available for training.”
The wildfire smoke, especially in the beginning, “did make it a little bit difficult,” said Cristano, who works as a plumber’s apprentice, when he is not on Army Reserve duty, “but we pushed through it.”
To mitigate the Soldiers’ exposure to the wildfire smoke, “we had the Soldiers downgrade uniforms, said Mills.
Soldiers were also given longer breaks between training lanes, so Soldiers could drink water and breath fresh air without their masks, according to Mills. The wildfire also played havoc with ORW 20-1’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy to have the Soldiers sleep outdoors in their isolated sleep systems, said Faddell. Instead, the Soldiers slept in barracks to have better air quality and were monitored by their unit leadership and the ORW 20-1 medical team to keep their “bubbles” and social distance, Faddell said.
ORW 20-1 received priority status, “for un-forecasted lodging as a result of the fires and resulting smoke,” Moss added.
By the end ORW 20-1, there was a lot of positive takeaways and a lot of lessons learned. ORW 20-1 was comprised of 25 training units from over a dozen training partners with more than 14 states represented according to Moss.
“The fact that we’ve been able to get a team together; to come up with a great COVID mitigation strategy, to come up with a testing plan,” Faddell said. “To have the medical providers available, to have the COVID support team, to have the contact tracing team and PREVMED support, it’s been a lot of work and a lot of effort but I think it’s paid off in some very good training for Soldiers.”
ORW 20-1 has allowed units to meet in person again and train, Moss said.
In addition, a COVID-19 medical pamphlet was available as part of the post exercise mitigation plan for participants to take home with them.
“For 14 days there is some level of risk,” Faddell said. “We created a trifold for each Soldier to have, with what symptoms to look for and what to do if they have those symptoms.
"I applaud the Soldiers that have come,” Faddell said. “I think that our teams have been fantastic.”
The Army Reserve’s mission remains constant: to generate combat-ready units and Soldiers that are trained and equipped to support homeland response efforts and to win the nation’s wars, as they adjust to operating in the new COVID aware environment, while maintaining readiness and implementing measures to keep the Soldiers and families safe.
“We are still Soldiers,” Cristano said, “It’s good for us to practice at least once a year.”
The Army Reserve expects to complete “Ready Warrior” Phase I in December and to begin Phase II in January 2021.
“The amount of training here, that we’ve conducted, shows us where the Army, we still have our strengths,” Mills said, “to be able to conduct movement and bring Soldiers out and conduct training.
“And with the new mitigation of a pandemic,” Mills said. “It shows us where we can improve, because we haven’t had one (a global pandemic) in over a hundred years, where we can increase our training and our awareness and safety of training troops before we send them out.”