By Devon Suits
Army News Service
Creative problem solving, teamwork, and resiliency have helped Army units resume home-station training to ensure readiness amid a lingering pandemic that has drastically affected everyday life.
As the COVID-19 virus began to spread, the Department of Defense issued a stop-movement order in mid-March, halting all training to safeguard personnel.
It took months for many units, such as the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division; and elements of the Army Reserve, to return to in-person learning with added protective measures in place.
"Home-station training is an integral part of our preparation," said Col. Timothy T. Kemp, the 1/34 ABCT commander. "We have to do it with new methodologies to protect our Soldiers, [families, and civilians] for now and into the future."
The 82nd Airborne Division still maintains its ability to strategically deploy forces within 18 hours of notification despite many adjustments, said Maj. Dominick Cinotto, the division’s air operations officer.
The virus has "fundamentally changed the way we complete our training objectives," Cinotto said. To maintain division standards, leaders developed creative solutions to eliminate additional risks.
Similarly, Soldiers from the 1/34 ABCT worked through an abbreviated training schedule in preparation for a National Training Center rotation in July. They were also called on to support local authorities in Minneapolis and Saint Paul during the height of civil unrest in May, Kemp said.
"The U.S. Army is essential," Kemp said, adding leaders must continue to safely conduct home-station, collective, and capstone training to make sure the Army is ready to answer the nation's call.
The 82nd Abn. Div. has now reduced the number of people on an aircraft by half for personnel safety, which cuts the jumper population aboard an Air Force C-17 Globemaster to around 50 Soldiers, Cinotto said.
Before COVID-19, training for airborne operations often required Soldiers to be near proximity, he said. The initial and final manifest call processes, for example, are "close in nature," as jumpmasters conduct personnel inspections to correct any deficiency in the wear or fit of equipment, along with a series of administrative tasks.
Elements of airborne and mock door training also required Soldiers to be in tight order, as they learned proper parachute landing falls and other actions before and after exiting an aircraft, he added.
Division leaders prioritized airborne safety procedures throughout the training process, as they implemented COVID-19 mitigation measures. Proper airborne training procedures allow Soldiers to build the required "muscle memory" to remain safe during airborne operations, he said.
Jumpers are now required to wear face coverings in the form of neck gaiters, which provides proper protection without interference during training, he said.
Hand sanitizing stations are also readily available for all personnel during the equipment inspection process. Jumpmasters are required to sanitize their hands as they move between Soldiers.
Limiting the number of personnel aboard an aircraft to ensure the proper 6 feet of distancing is a significant shift in training procedures, Cinotto said. For Soldiers to maintain their airborne proficiency, the division increased the number of jumps out of UH-60 Blackhawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters.
"Jumpmasters are getting more repetitions through a more diverse plethora of aircraft," he said. "Jumpers are getting the same amount of training that they would normally receive in a safe environment."
Getting through this challenging time required personnel to work together, similar to how a little group of paratroopers, or LGOPs, would find each other on a drop zone and form a small lethal band to discover a solution, he said.
"COVID-19 is just another way for this division to exercise the LGOPs’ form of critical problem solving … and that is what the 82nd is best known for," he said. "No one here is dealing with this alone," as everyone continues to come together and strengthen their bond under one common purpose.
Close to 4,200 Soldiers with 1/34 ABCT had all been preparing for their upcoming NTC rotation when COVID-19 hit the country, Kemp said. The brigade had already completed a series of exercises in 2019 to validate its knowledge on large-scale combat operations.
"When the impact of COVID-19 became apparent around March timeframe, we switched to virtual drill training for our home-station preparation," Kemp said.
During that time, Soldiers completed a range of administrative and leadership development tasks, as leaders virtually exercised standard operating and battle rhythm procedures in preparation for NTC.
As the DOD lifted its COVID-19 travel ban, brigade leadership quickly implemented a 14-day virus monitoring process to track Soldiers’ health before an inactive duty training date, or IDT, Kemp said. The brigade also worked to educate personnel about the virus to self-diagnose any symptoms and seek immediate care.
Kemp said Soldiers who were two weeks out from training received a call every two days to check for any COVID-19-related symptoms. The call frequency would increase to daily check-ins when the individual was one week out from scheduled training.
The brigade was fortunate to have amazing medical providers, he said. “They were in contact with COVID-19, and their knowledge was well beyond anything published by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]," he added. "They made some good judgment calls as to whether a Soldier should stay home or they come in."
During training weekends, leaders had to consolidate and reorganize the training plan to match the skillset of available personnel, Kemp said. If half the mechanics were available during an IDT, for example, the brigade shifted its strategy to eliminate added risks upon its vehicles and personnel.
"That is what made our leaders stronger in many ways," Kemp said. "They got to know their Soldiers … in a more in-depth way and learn what is going on with their families."
Leaders also identified close to 80 Soldiers who had family members with immune-deficiency conditions. To support them, Kemp implemented additional medical assessment processes to test these Soldiers before they returned home.
With measures successfully in place, the brigade continued to train up until their NTC departure window. The unit later converged at Camp Ripley, Minnesota, to prepare for a large-scale movement by rail when state officials activated the Guard to support local authorities during the height of civil unrest, Kemp said.
"We immediately responded and mustered our Soldiers and got them to Minneapolis and Saint Paul to support," he added.
The brigade receives regular training to respond to state-requested mission sets, Kemp said. Some of the missions include riot control and site security through civil authority support, forest fire response, aerial extraction, and flood-relief support.
"Our noncommissioned and junior officers who have been through [the applicable] training immediately took charge of their organizations,” he said. “They made sure their Soldiers were doing things properly and supportive of each citizen's constitutional right to protest."
The brigade later returned to Camp Ripley, repacked all their gear and vehicles, and headed out to Fort Irwin, California.
"It is probably the proudest moment of my military career to watch the professionalism, skills and abilities of my Soldiers at every level, as they found ways to adapt to the virus,” he said, “and get the training they need to be safe at NTC."
A combination of support from Army senior leaders, Army Forces Command, the National Guard Bureau, and more than 20 states contributed to the brigade's success, Kemp said.
"Our brigade is now ready to conduct any mission, anywhere in the world," he added.
Sustaining readiness was also a top priority for the Army Reserve leadership, as the force worked to resume collective training while simultaneously minimizing risk.
"COVID-19 was a forcing function to empower leaders at all levels to use their discretion," said Brig. Gen. Dustin A. Shultz, deputy chief of staff, G-3/5/7, for the Office of the Chief of Army Reserve.
Units worked to maintain readiness through individual and small-scale collective training exercises. At the same time, Reserve leadership implemented Operation Ready Warrior and other recent collective training exercises to focus on individual tasks and small group training.
Operation Ready Warrior was held at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, in August and again in September at Fort Hunter Liggett, California. Mitigation measures were put in place during both events, as officials closely monitored local conditions to provide Soldiers a safe training environment.
"Employing screening and testing mechanisms before large gatherings and assessing risk at the individual level has absolutely been key," Shultz said. "At the same time, we're challenging our leaders to remain transparent with their subordinates, flattening their communications, and exercising mission command."
Along with the training, more than 3,000 Soldiers were part of the whole of nation response to the pandemic. Medical capabilities were chief among the requested forces, as were specialties in areas such as logistics, engineering, military intelligence, aviation, legal, and military history expertise.
As confirmed cases of COVID-19 exceeded 1 million, 18 Urban Augmentation Medical Task Forces were mobilized to provide medical relief in the hardest-hit areas in the U.S. from March through September, officials said.
Each 85-member task force included medical providers, nurses, respiratory therapists, and other medical professionals. Personnel from the Army Reserve Medical Command, 3rd Medical Command (Deployment Support), and 807th Medical Command (Deployment Support) all supported what became the largest domestic mobilization in Reserve history, officials said.