ROCK ISLAND, Ill. – The COVID-19 pandemic changed the ways First Army Soldiers conducted their mission of training and preparing National Guard and Army Reserve units for mobilization, deployment and demobilization. But it never stopped the mission itself.
Throughout First Army, Soldiers have maintained readiness of their partner units by adopting safety precautions to protect the force at Mobilization Force Generation Installations, or MFGI’s, at Fort Hood and Fort Bliss, Texas. Reserve component units continued to deploy for critical missions around the world, while demobilizing units were able to complete their requirements in a timely fashion and ensure Soldier safety before returning to their home stations.
“We can continue to train and do business under the conditions that we’re facing,” said Col. Lance Cangelosi, the commander of the 120th Infantry Brigade At Fort Hood. “We have to be a little bit thoughtful about reasonable precautions, but we are absolutely capable of continuing to train units, build readiness and support our combatant command.”
“Our job is to train and validate and deploy service members, and we will make our mission,” said Col. Martin Schmidt, commander of First Army Division West’s 5th Armored Brigade, at Fort Bliss. “Training can be done and we can accomplish everything we accomplished prior to COVID-19. It’s just a new normal.”
The first precaution was to place Soldiers in quarantine to monitor for symptoms. When arriving at an MFGI, both mobilizing and demobilizing Soldiers went through a mandatory 14-day quarantine as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus.
For mobilizing units, First Army commanders optimize the time Soldiers spend in quarantine to meet some training requirements.
“The first seven days they’re doing medical checks,” said Rick Fink, First Army chief of training. “If after seven days they’re not turning up positive or suspected of having COVID, they can start doing individualized training, and that is done around the barracks in most cases.”
After the mandatory monitoring period, Fink said, Reserve component Soldiers continued their mobilization training facilitated by First Army observer coach/trainers. That training came with some modifications.
“The unit is distanced from any other unit,” Cangelosi said. “The Hood mobilization brigade brings them chow in the barracks, and arranges for laundry and life support activities,” said Cangelosi. “The 120th observer coach/trainers pick up those units from their barracks and transport them to the training area. The OC/Ts and anybody that’s involved with training that unit goes through a COVID-19 screening protocol.”
OC/Ts of the 120th Infantry Brigade observe proper social distancing, hygiene and mask protocols while training partner units, Cangelosi said.
“OC/Ts are doing the exact same job,” Cangelosi said. “We are training them on the same task; we’re just putting some additional requirements and protocols in place to minimize the risk of the spread of COVID.”
Combining mandatory quarantine with training worked to the advantage of the Reserve component units with which First Army partners by keeping their mind on their mission, Cangelosi said.
“The units appreciate that they are not just sitting in their barracks for 14 days in a do-nothing quarantine, but are actively engaged in building readiness and preparing for their upcoming deployments,” Cangelosi said.
The process on the other end of the deployment is likewise streamlined, Cangelosi said, by using virtual technology.
“Demobilizing Soldiers have continued to come into Fort Hood from overseas, and rather than just do a 14-day quarantine and then execute the demobilization, they are executing demobilization tasks while in quarantine,” Cangelosi said. “We have a bank of computers, phones and scanners that are made available to them, and they are able to execute most of their demobilization tasks while they are in quarantine.”
Using time effectively to accommodate both collective training requirements and Soldier safety has been a concerted team effort, according to Maj. William Ponder, acting operations officer for First Army Division West’s 120th Infantry Brigade.
“It’s a huge success that we’ve been able to continue with our mission with the limitations and constraints,” Ponder said. “There have been outstanding efforts by everyone involved in this, down to every Soldier in our organization. It was a very challenging obstacle up front to try and get over, but I think we’ve found a new battle rhythm that’s made us a better organization.”
At Fort Bliss, home to First Army’s other active MFGI, training has largely remained the same. Schmidt said the changes mostly involved a shift in schedule to accommodate the quarantine, altering when Soldiers of the deploying unit would attend Soldier readiness processing for administrative requirements.
“In the past, units would go to SRP first, and then they would start training. Now they go to SRP on day 14,” Schmidt said.
Despite the changes and challenges, Schmidt said they are accomplishing the commander’s intent to provide trained and ready Reserve component forces for combatant commanders worldwide.
“We still do squad live fires, platoon live fires, and we still do a lot of collective movement tasks. We’re still doing guardian angel training, we’re still doing combat lifesaver,” Schmidt said.
Another focus is on making sure demobilizing Soldiers use their time well in quarantine.
“We are still interacting with them. We are still prepping them for their reverse SRP, giving them face time with providers for the periodic health assessments,” Schmidt said.
By doing all this, units are usually flying home within two days of leaving quarantine. And by communicating, planning and executing, First Army and Reserve component units continue to work together to build partnerships, improve readiness and drive on with the mission.