A unit of Soldiers taking leave for the holidays is one thing, but when 6,300 initial entry troops and hundreds of cadre are doing so simultaneously, it is quite another matter that demands extensive planning and organization.

For those unfamiliar with Holiday Block Leave, it is the annual event in which thousands of advanced individual training students take up the offer of furlough and depart the installation for home or elsewhere. HBL dates are Dec. 20 to Jan. 3 for the 23rd Quartermaster Brigade and Dec. 19 to Jan. 4 for 59th Ordnance Bde.

“It gives Soldiers a break for Christmas so they can spend time with their loved ones,” acknowledged Command Sgt. Maj. Lisa Haney, the Dragon Brigade’s former senior enlisted leader. “I welcome HBL. It’s a chance to step away from the training grind, and I think it’s a very positive thing for morale and Soldier resiliency.”

Haney further reflected on what HBL means to school instructors and company trainers – many of whom come to work at o-dark-thirty and don’t slip off their boots until well after the sun goes down. As the CSM put it, “the Soldiers are here 24/7, so cadre must be here 24/7.”

Another way to look at it is students spend two months here on average but eventually graduate and move on to their assignments. In contrast, cadre hold permanent positions and will handle hundreds, maybe thousands, of fledgling Soldiers over the course of a two- or three-year tenure here.

Who benefits from HBL, however, is only a sliver of the story. Logistically, pulling it off is a bear. Among other requirements, the brigades are responsible for preparing students with safety, security and standards of conduct training; processing leave forms; closing up their respective barracks facilities; running departure nodes; and facilitating travel to and from transportation hubs. Keep in mind also that not every Soldier goes home, and there are health and welfare needs for those who will remain on the installation.

Needless to say, it requires tons of planning, strong collaborative relationships, and a dizzying amount of coordination, execution and creativity. The entire operation is labor intensive and requires large teams of staff leaders and cadre to work out the details months ahead of time.

“This entire process is essentially a yearlong effort,” confirmed Maj. Michael Klemmer, 59th Ord. Bde. S3. “The wheels are always turning even amid the holiday period. We’re essentially taking everything we learned from the previous year and identifying and putting into motion the plan for next year.  When you look at this, it is roughly equivalent to the deployment of a brigade combat team, but we’re all just going back home. It’s a very complicated effort to really get everyone aligned to push that many people out in a couple of days.”

During HBL’s 24-48 hours of departure operations, contract buses will head out of certain installation locations en-route to the Richmond airport, Amtrak train station and bus terminals.

“We have different command teams running the nodes – one each for the bus depot, train station, (MacLaughlin) gym, Clark gym and the Richmond International Airport,” Haney explained. “Their mission is to make sure Soldiers are getting on the buses on time, getting in the right lines, going to the right locations and maintaining their military bearing while awaiting transportation.”

Departure operations for 59th Ord. are similar, but the staging locations are different, said Klemmer.

To pull it all off, the brigades get help from the Transportation Security Administration, airline and Amtrak ticketing operations, the Red Cross and USO, and others, said Klemmer.

“Another factor is that we have 600 or so Soldiers who will be picked by their parents (or other family members) via privately owned vehicle,” said Klemmer. “There are many moving parts and everything we do is focused on the safe transit of Soldiers off of Fort Lee and through the transportation nodes, as applicable.

“A big part of this mission that we stress time and again is that people need to be well-rested and prepared to execute their travel plans,” the major also observed. “We want them to stay vigilant and keep their eyes and ears open for anything out of the ordinary. They need to assess every situation and not take any unnecessary risks.”

Those responsibilities do not go away when travelers arrive at their destination. Haney said safety briefings highlight ethical behavior – how Soldiers remain morally bound to their commitments whether wearing the uniform or not – and potential issues some may be faced with while on leave, such as alcohol consumption, drugs and negative relationships.

“We clue them in on what not to do,” she said. “We assure those going home that if they’re having trouble and want to come back early, they’re more than welcome. We all know that some Soldiers don’t go home to great environments. We tell them to go where there’s a safe place for them. We want them to relax, reset and return to Fort Lee with the right mindset and ready to train.”

For as many students who will depart the installation, roughly 600 will remain. Their presence over the holidays requires accountability as well as cadre support and recreational programming.

“Those who decide to stay are no less important than the ones taking leave,” Haney stressed. “We have a lot of activities planned for the Soldiers who remain. There will be holiday parties and lots of opportunities to get out of the barracks. Those with families in the area will be offered passes.”

 Fort Lee Family and MWR has in the past scheduled social and recreational activities on and off the installation to include trips to sporting events and video game venues.

“We try to make it as cheerful as we can,” Haney said. “There are big meal plans in the dining facilities for Soldiers and there are USO activities. We try to make it a holiday for them. They don’t have to do PT at 5 in the morning. They can do it in the middle of the day. It’s O.K. We don’t want them to feel penalized because they don’t have anywhere to go.”

The programs of instructions for both the Ord. and QM schools are scheduled to resume Jan. 6.

HBL occurs at all Army installations that conduct basic combat training and AIT. It allows roughly 40,000 IET Soldiers to travel home and elsewhere during the holiday season, according to Training and Doctrine Command.