The Army Reserve’s Indianapolis-based 310th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) noncommissioned officers were the backbone of the unit’s mobilization and deployment here during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“NCOs are the enforcers of standards including those associated with COVID-19 mitigation,” said 310th ESC Command Sgt. Maj. Keith A. Gwin, whose Soldiers deployed to staff 1st Theater Sustainment Command’s operational command post here. The Fort Knox, Kentucky- based 1st TSC handles all logistics in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.
“Having NCOs continuously reinforcing the importance of measures such as mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing has led directly to the success we’ve had to this point in stopping infection and spread of COVID-19,” Gwin said.
The 310th ESC Soldiers arrived here shortly before Christmas, and they expect to case their colors and handoff running 1st TSC OCP to the Fort Bragg, North Carolina-based 3rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) at the end of August.
Gwin, who is double hatted as the 1st TSC OCP command sergeant major, said his non-commissioned officers were critical to maintaining the discipline needed to keep up the unit’s COVID-19 mitigations throughout the mobilization.
The command sergeant major said one of the biggest challenges in the mobilization process was putting together a team with so many Soldiers new to the unit and transferring in to fill vacant slots.
“I was very concerned about how new our team was,” he said. “The deployment brought together over 250 officers, NCOs and Soldiers from across the country to form the organization we have today. COVID-19 had a significant impact on our pre-mobilization planning and our ability to train together and build the team.”
Even with the new players on the team, the job got done, he said.
“It’s a tribute to the professionalism and motivation of the entire team that we were able to meet our training requirements and deploy in what was effectively a 90-day period,” said the Indiana resident, who first enlisted in the active component in 1989 and then transferred to the Army Reserve in 1999.
Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Justin McKay, an Active Guard Reserve, or full-time Soldier with the 310th ESC, serves as the noncommissioned officer in charge of 1st TSC OCP Surgeon Cell, said he brought his medical experience as a combat medic and his individual experience as a COVID-19 survivor to the deployment preparations.
The Iraq War veteran said he was pleased with how the unit’s NCOs rallied to the challenge of deploying under COVID-19 mitigations.
McKay said throughout the deployment, the 310th ESC NOCs were part of an active feedback system for mitigating COVID-19 that included the personnel at the Surgeon’s Cell, the command’s leadership and constant monitoring of data.
“We’ve been doing the COVID-19 fight since day one, and it’s been a team effort,” he said.
“I think initially, people questioned the wisdom of the protocols, but when people are affected by COVID-19, like myself, or their family members, they take it more seriously,” said the combat medic, or 68W. “Especially, when you are put through the quarantine yourself, you start thinking: ‘OK, this is something I need to push on the junior enlisted as well.”
McKay tested positive for COVID-19 in October, just before the official mobilization, he said.
“I was on vacation when I caught COVID, so I had to stay at home for two weeks,” he said.
“As the unit’s 68 whiskey, I was always working towards enforcing the protocols—my experience was just going work-home-work-home, and I got COVID, and I took every precaution possible,” the medic said.
“I don’t want to tell you it was very serious, but I was out of the fight for more than 10 days,” he said. “It gives you a perspective. You realized it was serious—no one wants to feel sick—even with just minor symptoms—it also gives you some authority when you speak about it.”
Going through COVID-19 also gives one insight into the signs and symptoms of the disease as you are around other people, he said.
McKay, who joined the unit in April 2020, said by then, the Defense Department and Centers for Disease Control were putting out directives and advisories regarding how to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and establish protocols for individual units.
“It started coming in thick and heavy, and it changed everything from the way we trained to the way we planned training,” the South African native said.
“We went to virtual battle assemblies—which was virtually unheard of—excuse the pun—and that made a big impact, especially for us as we were getting ready for a deployment,” he said.
McKay said it started with the full-time staff at 310th ESC’s home at the Spc. Luke P. Frist Army Reserve Center, Lawrence, Indiana, with masks, hand washing and social distancing, so that when the drilling Army Reserve Soldiers began to come on orders in anticipation of the mobilization, there was already a culture in place.
The combat medic said the first large-scale test of the unit’s COVID-19 mitigation culture was the two-week annual training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, the home of 1st TSC’s main command post. During this AT, most 1st TSC MCP sections met with the deploying “Brickyard” Soldiers to forge the working relationships for the nine-month tour.
“We were in large barrack rooms, so we had to space out the bunks—masks enforced,” he said. “We even had our own tracing team trained in case we had new outbreaks, but I don’t think we had a single case of COVID-19—well, one case, it was a Soldier coming from Florida, so it was not someone who caught it from us.”
Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Emily Hussey said when she joined the unit just before the mobilization, she recognized that the “Brickyard” NCOs took COVID-19 mitigation seriously.
“What I thought was impressive was that we all came together collectively as a team, as NCOs, and said: ‘Hey, safety is first and foremost, and we’re going to make sure we share this safety throughout the ranks,’” said the Sanford, North Carolina resident, who joined the Army in 2002.
Hussey, a medical logistics specialist, or 68J, said she tracked personnel protective equipment and other medical supplies in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility for the Distribution Integration Branch of 1st TSC OCP’s Support Operations Office, or DIB-SPO.
She said the positive attitude of the NCOs infected the rest of the Soldiers.
“We’re the standard bearers,” she said.
“We don’t bring griping and complaining to the table,” she said. “We try to find solutions to problems.”
Gwin said another challenge was the possible exposure to COVID-19 at the mobilization station.
“The COVID-19 infection rates at north Fort Hood, Texas at the time we were there were
worrisome,” he said. “Successfully navigating through post-[mobilization] training required unit and Soldier discipline as well as the cooperation of our 1st Army partners and the Hood Mobilization Brigade.”
McKay said when the Soldiers arrived at Fort Hood in November for their pre-mobilization validations and staff exercises, the unit built on the lessons from the Fort Knox experience.
“There were different expectations,” he said.
“You knew, for example, we were not going to a regular [mobilization] site, where you could go to the PX every day, or we’d all go to the gym or off post to get barbeque,” said the veteran of both the British army and the South African army. “We knew essentially, we were going to go to Fort Hood, and once we got there, we were there until we leave.” PX is shorthand for the Post Exchange or retail store.
Hussey said in addition to spacing out the beds in the barracks, a team used an antiviral disinfectant vapor to sanitize the lodging areas. “They would come around at least twice a day and fog.”
Gwin said the mobilization was a balancing act between taking precautions necessary in the COVID-19 environment and the vital time Soldiers needed to bond into a team.
Under the COVID-19 conditions, the Army cohorts or separates Soldiers who tested positive for COVID-19 and all those who were in close contact with the infected Soldiers, he said.
“Being successful in a COVID-19 environment is a team effort and requires comprehensive and synchronized efforts by all involved,” he said.
“Cohorting of personnel is an effective way to manage the spread of COVID; however, there is no substitute for physical space whether that be in billets, in busses and vans, in classrooms and other training venues,” he said.
McKay said the 310th NCOs built upon the practices and conduct established at forts Knox and Hood so that when the unit took over running 1st TSC OCP here, everyone was focused and engaged on mitigation.
“I had to correct people on rare occasions—maybe a handful,” he said. “These weren’t people who were intentionally lapsing. They would forget their mask or other minor cases like that—in the last eight months, maybe four times, so people were taking it very seriously.”
One proof of the effectiveness of this culture of mitigation is the number of COVID-19 positives housed as the camp’s Isolation Facility, or ISOFAC, which 1st TSC OCP Soldiers operated collateral to their regular duties, he said.
“Our numbers now prove it,” the medic said.
“We peaked with roughly 50 positives at the ISOFAC, but they came that way—it was not an Arifjan or 310th or even 1st TSC issue,” he said. “It was the case of one unit closing the door after the horse had bolted.”
Even with this peak, the COVID-19 mitigation worked, he said.
“It was contained, and as they went through the process and doing the isolation, we weren’t getting a mass increase, which shows things on the ground were working,” he said. “If it had suddenly kept on spiking-spiking, then, guess what? It’s spiking across post, not just in one unit.”
Hussey said it was a relief when the mask and social distancing rules were relaxed at the camp, which meant that the gyms and the stores were more open than before.
“We were allowed to participate in activities on base, and we were allowed to not wear our masks for a short period of time,” she said.
“When those restrictions were put back on us, it really set us back as far as morale wise, but it goes back to NCOs being the standard bearer,” the sergeant first class said.
“You never let your subordinates of your officer counterparts see you sweat,” she said. “We were told to do it, so we marched out smartly.”
McKay said with the renewed and heightened COVID-19 concerns, he saw how the Soldiers immediately responded.
“Nobody wants to go back, but we are aware. We know the protocols. We know the procedures,” he said.
“The things you put into effect, like the mask mandates, social distancing, washing our hands, have become a way of life—it has become like any other Army task.”