NORMAN, Okla. – Soldiers of the Oklahoma National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) began their annual training at armories and readiness centers across the state last week.
"As Guardsmen, we have a duty to be ready for when our state and nation call on us," said Col. Colby Wyatt, commander, 45th IBCT. "As Guard leaders, we have a duty to protect our force and their families from unnecessary exposure to COVID-19. However, even as the pandemic persists, we still need to be ready to answer that call."
Wyatt said Soldier welfare is always the brigade's focus, adding: "Our top priority is taking care of our Guardsmen and the families that support them. That's why we are constantly adapting our training plans and developing countermeasures to COVID-19."
The Thunderbirds were to take on the eXportable Combat Training Capability (xCTC) program at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, in May and June. But the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic forced the 45th to reschedule the brigade-wide field training exercise for later in the summer.
This gave Brigade planners and medical personnel time to develop a plan for how the nearly 3,000 Soldier-strong combat unit would take on the large-scale training exercise while protecting the health of the force.
This planning included the introduction of cloth face masks, social distancing, sanitation procedures, defining health bubbles and outlining standard operating procedures to keep Soldiers safe during the global pandemic.
Ultimately, the brigade's leadership, in coordination with leaders from the Oklahoma National Guard, chose to forego xCTC in favor of home station training with a focus on Soldier readiness.
The 45th IBCT is based in Norman, but the brigade's armories are in communities across the state, particularly in central and eastern Oklahoma.
At one readiness center in Mustang, Citizen-Soldiers with the 545th Brigade Engineer Battalion (BEB), 45th IBCT, donned facemasks and took time to focus on rifle marksmanship and Soldier skills.
Sgt. Trevor Schultz, a noncommissioned officer with Company A, 545th BEB, and a resident of Perry, led Soldiers through classes on individual movement techniques.
"This annual training is far different than any AT I've done before," Schultz said. "Social distancing is the key here, but that's not the only thing we're doing to mitigate. We've divided up PT (physical training) times, and even formations look different. We have everyone spread out no less than 6 feet apart."
Schultz's platoon and Soldiers from across the brigade are following the 45th's standard operating procedure for training during COVID, which includes COVID screening and temperature checks several times a day.
"We're also aggressively enforcing wearing masks," Shultz said. "Taking care of our Soldiers' health isn't just a job for noncommissioned officers. It's our responsibility, and that means more than being just a job."
Nearly 100 miles away at an armory in Holdenville, field artillery Soldiers with Battery B, 1st Battalion, 160th Field Artillery Regiment, 45th IBCT, continue to train on moving, emplacing, sighting and preparing their 105 mm howitzers for mock fire missions.
This training is essential and, due to the nature of how the howitzers are operated, Soldiers cannot maintain social distancing and must work close to one another.
Sgt. Justin Zacharias, a section chief from Oklahoma City, shouted commands to his section through his mask and commended them for continuing to perform their duties while taking steps to fight the spread of coronavirus.
"We're all volunteers here," Zacharias said. "These Soldiers are doing a great job adapting to changing crews and working with the masks."
Spc. Joseph Shells, an Oklahoma City resident and one of the Company A, 545th BEB Soldiers who went through Shultz's movement class, is taking part in his first National Guard annual training after serving four years on active duty.
Shells said National Guard leaders are doing a lot to make sure the Soldiers are safe.
"They are enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing," Shells said. "We're sanitizing things after we use them, and our NCOs have designated Soldiers to carry sanitizer spray so we always have some when we need it. Our leadership is doing a great job making sure we're taking COVID serious."
The 45th's annual training cycle for this year will conclude around Aug. 15. Plans for next year's ATs are already underway as the brigade is to travel to Fort Irwin, California, to participate in exercises at the National Training Center (NTC).