SYRACUSE, N.Y. – New York Army National Guard Sgt. Heather Hiltbrand spent her April 25 drill weekend at home with her cat, Kevin, rather than at the Thompson Road Armory.
Hiltbrand, a signal support systems specialist in the Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, wasn’t AWOL. She was drilling virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Normally she would have been leading hands-on-training, meeting in person, and working closely with other Soldiers. Instead, Hiltbrand spent the weekend doing online training and calling her Soldiers, and moving her cat off the computer.
Her commander, Capt. Dan Krug, said New York National Guard leaders made a “good call” in having Soldiers drill from home.
The goal was to comply with the Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s social distancing directives and still give Soldiers credit for a day of drill, explained Col. Steve Rowe, the New York Army National Guard chief of staff.
The last normal drill for the New York Army National Guard occurred March 14-15.
On March 15, Maj. Gen. Ray Shields, the adjutant general and commander of the New York Army National Guard, directed all non-essential drills be performed as two Multiple Unit Training Assemblies, or a MUTA-2, a one-day drill instead of the traditional MUTA-4 weekend drill.
Soldiers were to stagger their attendance at the drill and large formations were to be avoided. The goal, Rowe said, was to mitigate any risks of transmitting the virus.
The 27th Brigade’s Headquarters Company had half the unit report in at a time and avoided formations.
With the number of COVID-19 cases in New York growing, mainly downstate, Cuomo put in place a “New York State on Pause” order that closed non-essential businesses and banned large gatherings of people. It took effect March 22.
At that point, all in-person drills were canceled and “virtual drills” were mandated for the remainder of March and April.
Although more and more Soldiers were being mobilized for the COVID-19 response, with almost 3,000 at one point, that still left at least 6,000 Soldiers who needed to drill.
The goal, Rowe explained, was to keep them connected to their units and give them a “good” month toward their overall yearly training requirement. Leaders also wanted to ensure Soldiers earned a paycheck for the month, since many count on the income.
Hiltbrand spent her April drill on her couch, in her Syracuse home, in civilian clothes.
“I was pretty much working out of my living room, trying to get as comfy as possible, answering phones and emails all day,” Hiltbrand said.
She joked that her new kitten helped keep track of her Soldiers’ progress when he wasn’t sitting on her keyboard to keep warm.
“Every single time I took him off the computer, he went right back on,” Hiltbrand said.
Along with completing online training in cybersecurity, anti-terrorism and hazardous materials awareness, the drill also involved digital records reviews, individual counseling and evaluations, and a check of the company’s phone alert roster.
At a time when Soldiers can’t be together, senior leaders have been stressing the importance of communication. So Hiltbrand used less-traditional means of keeping in touch.
“I FaceTimed a couple of my Soldiers,” Hiltbrand said. “It was a little bit easier to see what was on their computer so I could help them out.”
When the governor extended his PAUSE order into May, virtual drills were also extended. Again, Soldiers were given a list of tasks to complete during their time at home.
Drill weekends were not the only training that changed. Enlisted Soldiers who would have attended the basic leader course for Guard and active-duty Soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in May were instructed to switch to an all-online class.
As the state begins “opening up” after almost 90 days of social isolation, the New York Army National Guard is planning on conducting hybrid drills in June, Rowe said.
Soldiers will attend drill in-person for three hours at a time during the weekend, and commanders will ensure that only 25 percent of a unit is present at any time.
Soldiers will wear face masks and other personal protective equipment and practice social distancing, and large groups will be limited, Rowe said. For the rest of their drill weekend, the Soldiers will be at home working online.
The hybrid drill will allow command teams to connect with their Soldiers and give noncommissioned officers a chance to talk to their Soldiers face-to-face and make sure they are OK, Rowe said.
Some Soldiers have not been at drill in-person in 80 days and it is important to stay connected, he emphasized.
While he looks forward to the next time he can see his Soldiers in-person, Krug sees drilling “virtually” as a viable alternative for keeping companies trained.
“At the back of their minds, every commander from now on should have a contingency plan,” Krug said.
His advice to fellow senior leaders: Get familiar with technology for video conferencing and online training now, so it’s effective when needed again.
“You don’t have to wait for a quarantine situation like this to use it,” Krug said.