Soldiers are marching more than an arm’s length from each other in abbreviated formations. Class sizes have been diminished, allowing for spacing between students. Lunches are being eaten outdoors to permit midday deep cleaning at dining facilities.
These and other steps have been taken by the military schools here to prevent COVID-19 from infiltrating the student population.
The Sustainment Center of Excellence, with one of the Army’s largest training missions, graduates about 30,000 logistics students yearly. It is strategically balancing the expectation to fulfill force readiness requirements while simultaneously implementing aggressive policies and social distancing procedures to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark Esper explained the department’s priorities and offered a vote of confidence in the actions being taken during a town hall Tuesday that was livestreamed on Facebook.
“It is a time of great challenge,” he said during opening remarks with Gen. Mark A. Milley, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, and Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramón Colón-López at his side. “As we face this global pandemic that is upon us, I want to reassure you the administration and the military are taking all necessary measures to protect our force, to protect our people, to protect our dependents, to protect our contractors and our civilians. I’ve made people our top priority.”
Protecting DOD’s ability to perform its mission and supporting the federal government’s effort to combat the virus rounded out the secretary’s areas of emphasis.
Fort Lee reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 Tuesday evening (details in local news reports). Virginia’s count of infected individuals had crossed the 300 mark as of press time, and there have been seven deaths, according to public health officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the nationwide total in excess of 44,000 confirmed cases and 544 deaths as of Tuesday.
In response to the initial outbreak, Fort Lee closed student graduations to outside guests, and cancellations and postponements of other large gatherings followed. Since then, schoolhouse leaders – through guidance from CASCOM, Training and Doctrine Command and the Department of the Army – have implemented additional safeguards and are identifying other ways to keep advanced individual training students, cadre and other staff safe without major disruption to the missions.
Command Sgt. Maj. Albert E. Richardson Jr., for one, said it is an ongoing process. “We’re looking at every aspect of daily life among our permanent party and AIT students to identify risk and take actions to mitigate unnecessary exposure while continuing mission,” said the 23rd QM Brigade CSM.
Richardson, noting the schoolhouses must “continue classroom training and program of instruction requirements in order to progress Soldiers through the initial entry training pipeline,” said the brigade has dutifully implemented other measures supporting prevention policies.
“Social distancing in formations, the dining facilities, the classrooms, multipurpose rooms, and any place we identify gatherings are all priorities,” he said. “We have stopped all off-post passes, visitations with family/friends, and anything that would expose AIT students to contact with the community.”
The social distancing policy recommends avoiding large gatherings and maintaining a distance of six feet from one another whenever possible.
On the other side of Fort Lee, the 59th Ordnance Brigade has adopted a posture similar to its neighboring organizations. Col. Daniel P. Ellinger said his brigade has moved to maximize social distancing.
“We’ve extended the hours (at the dining facility) for feeding so less Soldiers go through each time, and we’ve moved half the chairs so they are spread apart,” the brigade commander said. “In the classrooms, we have divided students into smaller groups.”
Additionally, the Ordnance Campus’ Samuel Sharpe DFAC was closed for the lunchtime meal March 19-20 to accommodate deep cleaning. Soldiers were offered Meals, Ready-to-Eat in lieu of the regular hot lunches at the DFAC. It is expected to remain closed for lunchtime cleaning indefinitely.
CSM Ivy L. Guido, brigade CSM, and Ellinger visited classrooms and the DFAC to make observations after the implementations. They were both pleased with how students and cadre adapted and determined the policies have had a minimal impact on training.
“It’s going really smooth,” Guido said.
Ellinger, noting the situation is still fluid, said the brigade staff will continue reassessing its activities for more that can be done.
“Every day, we learn more and come up with new ideas as things progress,” he said. “I’m always waiting for that great idea of how to do more social distancing. I think we’re doing just about everything we can do.”
The current schoolhouse prevention policies are expected to remain in effect for the foreseeable future.
Beyond Fort Lee, the military’s efforts to support the country’s fight against COVID-19 has taken many forms. The National Guard has been called to service in all 50 states, and the Army and Navy have been tapped to supply field medical facilities and hospital ships, respectively.
Furthermore, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases is pursuing several vaccine tracks.
Milley, in his town hall closing remarks, noted the country’s resilience in the face of the pandemic, the military’s role in such an endeavor and the expectation the country will overcome the crisis.
“We will get through this ….,” said the chairman. “We will pull together as a country and military, and we – the United States military – are going to do whatever is required to defend the people of this nation.”
Milley closed his remarks encouraging military members to act on the facts, follow the guidelines from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and support their chains of command. Esper encouraged “rank-and-file” troops to inform unit leaders if they see actions or activities that could put units at risk – specifically fellow Soldiers not taking social distancing steps seriously.