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NEWS | Oct. 21, 2020

Bubbles to the rescue: Army Reserve adapts training and education to COVID-19

By Cpt. Matthew Cline 377th Theater Sustainment Command

Across the training landscape of the Army Reserve, the seemingly distant memory of pre COVID-19 exercises is now but a wistful reminder of just how much has changed. The once-complex process of unit training before the pandemic is now simplistic by comparison to the requirements of the new age. Complex, immersive and cutting-edge safety measures have become the standard as the force seeks to maintain its fighting edge. 

At the 377th Theater Sustainment Command, the leading logistics element in support of Army North’s nationwide battle against the coronavirus, the training planners have faced down the colossal task of facilitating training during COVID-19 for the command’s footprint of over 35,000 troops. According to those behind the curtain, that is no small task.

“Think about the amount of troops that are involved within a training exercise, maybe a thousand to three thousand Soldiers for a given event,” said Lt. Col. Samuel Bates, deputy G-7 for the command. “That’s hard enough to facilitate…now imagine how much time, effort, energy and resources you have to account for just to have the extra measures in place to make the training event go on safely. It’s a lot we have to consider.”

Bates has the unenviable task of facilitating this training on the collective scale across the entire 377th Theater Sustainment Command, which has six subordinate expeditionary sustainment commands within its influence. In tandem with supporting partners like the 78th Training Division and 84th Training Command, his shop has had to adapt to entirely new levels of forecasting and safety mitigation measures to enable training to reengage after an initial hiatus when the virus first arrived. As a coronavirus survivor himself, he considers it an especially important job.

“I’ve learned that no one is exempt or immune from this pandemic,” he continued. “Obviously you want to make sure everyone is safe. It makes you more aware of what extra measures you need to take for your Soldiers and for yourself in order to keep everyone safe.”

To maintain Soldier safety at these large training events, the Army Reserve created a unique mitigation measure called the “bubble” system. The 377th Theater Sustainment Command employed it for the first time in scale during the 15-day Ready Warrior exercise held in August at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.

The system involves an extensive list of telephonic and virtual check-ins with Soldiers prior to their arrival at training, where they are then isolated with fellow Soldiers who have been determined to be COVID-19 free in small platoon size elements called ‘bubbles.’ When they arrive at the training, an intricate scheduling and distancing system allows each bubble to complete the required training with minimal to no contact with external bubbles.

As a result, the exercise enabled over 800 Soldiers from the 377th Theater Sustainment Command to validate on a variety of warrior tasks and drills that by nature require a hands-on training atmosphere. During the event, Soldiers received Army Combat Fitness Test familiarization and diagnostic tests, individual and crew-served weapons qualification, land navigation and overall mobilization training. 

The most exceptional aspect of the exercise, however, was just how effective the bubble system proved to be. Despite thousands of Soldiers convening on the location, attendees were protected from viral exposure despite the close proximity required. The tracking and preventative measures on the front end paid off, and the successes the Army Reserve experienced with the bubble system across the training spectrum did not go unnoticed.

“When we saw it working, and working well, we were contacted by the National Basketball Association, believe it or not, wondering how the bubble worked,” described Under Secretary of the Army James McPherson during a recent engagement with Defense News. “So we explained the bubble to them, and sure enough the NBA was the first professional sports organization that adopted the bubble. So the same approach you see across major league sports, that was first an Army approach.”

The 377th Theater Sustainment Command adopted a similar approach for military schools, where increased safety protocols and virtual delivery have become the mainstay of continued professional military education (PME). There are now pre-screening requirements for every school, along with extensive remote surveys conducted in the timeframe leading up to the school to ensure the attendees are safe to arrive.

Sgt. First Class Tamarra Ntambi, the schools and individual training non-commissioned officer for the command, sees this as the way of the future.

“I think that the Army is going to continue to roll with it, because so far it has been very successful,” she said. “Being a Reserve Soldier there are some classes that are maybe a week or a two week timeframe where it’s not easy for Soldiers to take off from their job, but it’s easy for them to complete the requirement virtually. They increased to more classes so that the Soldiers can attend these classes virtually and get these requirements knocked out.”

Ntambi explained that the course standards have not altered, nor have the high levels of expectation from their respective attendees. Physical fitness is still held at a premium even in a remote environment, as many of the classes are only partially virtual and still have the rigorous physical standards they were known for before the pandemic. She emphasized that the Army Reserve’s focus on maintaining the development of its Soldiers has not diminished in any capacity. 

“The Army’s going to continue to train,” she said. “Courses are still available; don’t think that because of COVID-19 you can’t attend your required PME. Just keep pushing and adapt to the changes because it’s not going back to the way it was.”

Despite all of the changes in training and challenges in reengaging in-person events, it is abundantly clear there is an underlying current of care and investment in the safety of the troops in all of the planned events. Lt. Col. Bates was visibly emotional as he conveyed his message of concern for the mental well-being of the troops as they potentially face the uncertainties of training during the pandemic.

“I know that everyone has intense feelings about the pandemic, but I want everyone to feel at ease,” he emphasized. “We’re still doing the mission, we’re still leading the effort out there training. We have all the safety countermeasures in place; it’s going to be a safe environment. You shouldn’t have to worry about the what-ifs…we are doing everything that we possibly can to make sure you have a safe training environment.”

His words rest on a firm foundation…the surprising strength of a bubble.