With the start of Holiday Block Leave less than two weeks away, leaders are ensuring service members here are prepared to navigate a COVID-19 environment as they travel and have put plans into place to re-establish a “safety bubble” when they return.

Roughly 6,500 students from the Quartermaster, Ordnance and Transportation schools are to leave the post over a period of three days from Dec. 18-20 and return to Fort Lee over the course of four days, Jan. 3-6.

Even though they are going on personal leave, Soldiers are required to do what they can to mitigate the risks of the pandemic for themselves, their families and their units. “Their safety is of the utmost importance,” insisted Sgt. Maj. Darryl Dotson, Transportation School SGM.

For the past 10 months, students have been “in a bubble” that has kept them safe from the virus for the most part, Dotson said. Leadership wants to ensure they continue to stay healthy while on leave.

“That’s the big push this year – have the time for rest and recuperation, but be safe while you are doing it,” summarized Capt. Jackson Yates, future operations officer in charge for the 59th Ordnance Brigade.

All the schools are working with Kenner Army Health Clinic to make sure prevention guidelines are communicated with Soldiers and cadre, and those steps are correctly followed, Yates said. This is the third year he has been involved in HBL planning, and it has been the most complicated because of COVID.

In previous years, planners had to be concerned about what happens if flights get cancelled or Soldiers experience personal problems, but this year, the pandemic has added to the complexity.

To make sure holiday leave goes as smoothly as possible, leaders started planning in August. They held rehearsals at multiple levels of command in October and November to get ready. Recent “Rehearsal of Concept” exercises had the full complement of senior leaders and training, operations and medical staff scrutinizing movement, departure and reception, and contingency plans if any personnel contract the virus.

Before they depart, Soldiers will be counseled by their chains of command on the appropriate steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, elaborated Col. Jason Affolder, 23rd Quartermaster Brigade commander. This includes wearing masks, practicing social distancing and washing hands often.

Soldiers are on-duty 24-7, even on personal leave, and they have a responsibility to enjoy their holidays safely. CASCOM leaders said they will be reminded … to make the right decisions when it comes to attending gatherings and events with too many people. The bottom line message will be taking personal responsibility to protect themselves and avoid bringing the virus back to Fort Lee.

Dotson stressed that General Order No. 1 – a directive signed by CASCOM’s commanding general – remains in effect even on leave. It applies to all services, officer and enlisted students, and the workforce in general.

Yates said rehearsals will continue on the Ordnance Campus right up until the start of HBL so every participant knows what to do and where to go. The command intends to make the departure run as smooth as possible.

Before boarding a bus or getting in a vehicle to go on leave, personnel will be screened for COVID symptoms. Those showing any signs of exposure will remain at Fort Lee for further diagnosis and treatment and quarantine if they test positive.

The 59th Ord. Brigade personnel directorate will be logging students out of Fort Lee, and the operations directorate will control every phase of movement up until the service member boards his or her plane, train, bus or vehicle. That plan includes oversight of student personnel while they are waiting for scheduled transportation.

As they do every year, the training brigades have built transportation schedules to get service members to the local airport, and train and bus stations over the course of the three days. They have directly coordinated with managers of those various locations to ensure minimal impact to other holiday travelers.

All Solders will “have hand sanitizer at all times and backup face protection while traveling,” Dotson said in regard to COVID safeguards. Officers and NCOs will monitor them until the last one departs to make sure they observe COVID protocols and set an example for professional behavior.

“We will have NCOs at every node,” Dotson assured.

In addition to their counseling, each service member will receive a medical card with contact information and instructions about what to do if they think they were exposed to COVID-19 or have any symptoms, Affholder said. They will be required to contact their chain of command at Fort Lee so their units know what’s happening. If students undergo medical care or isolate at home, their units will track their conditions and status.

As service members get ready to return from leave, they will be expected to check themselves before they travel, and follow the protocols on their cards if they have any symptoms. “How to bring them back safely and re-integrate units into the sterile bubble,” is one of the most difficult parts of the HBL plan, Yates said.

As soon as they arrive at the airport, or bus or train station, troops will be screened immediately. Anyone showing symptoms of COVID will be separated from the rest of the group and taken to the appropriate facility for diagnosis and treatment as needed. Asymptomatic travelers will be brought back to Fort Lee, where they will begin a two-week Restriction of Movement period.

While in ROM status, the Soldiers will receive regular health checks. Kenner will continue to serve as the commanders’ subject matter experts for health decisions, Yates said. Extra attention and monitoring for personnel who traveled to COVID-19 “hot spots” in the continental U.S. is part of the plan.

During the ROM period, students will stay in small groups of about 10, Affholder said. This will help contain an outbreak if anyone develops symptoms. They will still be doing training during this time, but much of it will be online learning.

When each brigade is confident it has re-established its “safe bubble” for training, normal duty activities can resume. Getting to that point will require all of the usual professionalism and dedication of cadre, Yates noted, as they will be the ones who ensure isolated Soldiers get their mail, can do laundry, are receiving clean linens and eat on schedule.

Picking up on that additional point, Affolder emphasized how vital HBL is to the wellbeing of permanent-party Soldiers, families and cadre. The holidays give unit leaders and instructors a much-needed and well-deserved break from training to reconnect with loved-ones. Rest, maintaining healthy relationships and taking prudent steps to protect against COVID-19 have been essential to Soldier health this year.

Both of his quartermaster battalions, much like Ordnance and Transportation, have experienced a very high operational tempo in 2020, Affholder said. Their training mission did not stop because of COVID-19. Often, instructors had to do double duty to make up for offices or services that closed due to the pandemic.  

The cadre charged with training advanced individual training students often put in 14-15 hour days, starting with physical training in the wee hours of the morning and ending after a full day of work at 5 or 6 p.m., Dotson said. HBL is an opportunity for cadre to take care of things they haven’t been able to do because they have been so busy training Soldiers.

It’s equally important for students in training, Affolder noted. They get an opportunity to go home and see their family and friends for the first time in months. It won’t be long before they are heading out to their first duty stations and possibly deploying shortly thereafter for exercises or real-world missions. The goal of the HBL period is to give Soldiers and cadre a break so they can recharge and rebuild their resiliency.

Sustainment Center of Excellence cadre will not lose focus on the service members who choose not to go home for the holidays. Part of HBL planning is making sure they have a chance to enjoy local holiday activities that Fort Lee Family and MWR and other organizations are putting together. In past years, it has included movie nights, trips to local attractions and unit parties with gifts from supporters like Holiday Helper and the USO.

An HBL Town Hall is scheduled for Friday at 1 p.m. Community members can watch and ask questions during the livestream at www.facebook.com/USACASCOM.