FORT IRWIN, Calif. - The Minnesota Army National Guard’s 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, was the first unit to complete rotational training at the Army’s National Training Center since training paused in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NTC is an Army combat training center that prepares units for possible large-scale conflicts before deploying.
The Minnesota team was ready to participate in the training with the additional challenges the global pandemic brought. However, COVID-19 wasn’t the only mission the unit supported or obstacle its members had to overcome.
In early June, Minnesota Guard members were also supporting civil disturbance response efforts in the wake of protests after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Supporting those efforts meant the unit had to unload vehicles and equipment previously ready to ship to the NTC for training, and then reload it before deploying to the training center, said Col. Michael Simmering, commander of the NTC’s operations group.
“What these [Soldiers] went through, how they fought to get here - I’ve never seen anyone fight so hard just to get to this point,” said Simmering.
The Soldiers’ versatility was not lost on the Minnesota Army Guard leadership either.
“It shows the quality of our Soldiers and leaders that we were able to come together and successfully complete this training rotation, not only during a pandemic but also coming directly from state active duty in support of civil unrest [response efforts],” said Army Brig. Gen. Michael Wickman, the commanding general for the 34th ID, which completed the training in late July.
Once they refocused on the NTC mission, safety was at the forefront of the training.
Extra safety measures – such as screening, testing and isolation – to mitigate the possible spread of the virus were taken before the training mission began in what Wickman described as a “deliberate process.”
“Minnesota Guardsmen underwent this process at Camp Ripley (Minnesota), where a U.S. Army mobile testing team assisted in ensuring a quick turnaround of COVID-19 test results,” he said. “Soldiers were separated into small groups starting at Camp Ripley to limit troop interaction, and facilitate social distancing [as they] traveled together.”
Efforts to mitigate the potential spread of the virus only increased in California.
Once Soldiers arrived at Fort Irwin, they went through COVID-19 screening and were screened daily for any symptoms, Wickman said. “Our leaders and medical personnel did a fantastic job of screening Soldiers, testing and quarantining those with symptoms and isolating personnel who may have been exposed.”
The training center provided manned access control points and restricted rotational training units to secured areas to create safety zones for the Fort Irwin community as well as the Soldiers.
Despite the pandemic, the training center provided Soldiers an opportunity to test their mettle, said Col. Timothy Kemp, a battalion commander with the 1st ABCT.
“The NTC developed a training plan that allowed us to progress at our own pace, and the [opposing forces' training teams] make it a challenge no matter how well you are doing – which only makes you better,” he said.
Ultimately, the pandemic did not affect the continuity of training for the Minnesota Army Guard members, said Army Brig. Gen. David Lesperance, commander of the NTC.
“There was no impact to training [from COVID-19], and none of the battalions were affected to the point where we couldn’t continue,” he said.
Successfully coordinating with their active-duty counterparts led to the training mission’s overall success, too.
“The most important factor in conducting this training was the deliberate planning process we used with our partners,” Wickman said. “This would not have been successful without the Total Army approach, including the [United States Army Forces Command], and units from all three components.”
The unit showed that readiness is still a top priority for the Army National Guard, said Army Gen. James McConville, chief of staff of the Army.
“COVID has really created the fog and friction we often see in combat, and it’s real,” he said. “Taking a brigade that’s been at ground zero for COVID-19 and bringing them out here puts them in a position to learn and prove their readiness for future combat.”
Casey Slusser, Fort Irwin Office of Public Affairs, contributed to this story.