FORT LEE, Va. – Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston met with installation leaders and toured various facilities here Wednesday to gain perspective on COVID-19 impacts and the installation’s response measures.
After arriving by helicopter, the dignitaries were first taken to the 111th Quartermaster Company area where they received a windy outdoor briefing on the functions and capability of the mortuary affairs unit. There are only two in the active duty component. The 54th QM Company, also based at Fort Lee, is currently deployed to New York where the death toll from COVID-19 had topped 7,000 as of Thursday.
Lt. Col. Matthew Western, deputy commander of the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary) – the 54th’s parent organization based at Fort Eustis – provided a situation report for his deployed unit. He noted how augmentation from the Quartermaster School’s Joint Mortuary Affairs Center here has “increased capability and throughput.”
The secretary and SMA were then shown the Mobile Integrated Remains Collection System, a key asset for mortuary affairs companies and the important role they play in the dignified recovery and processing of deceased individuals. McCarthy absorbed the information and offered the following observation about future deployments in support of COVID-19 recovery operations.
“You are going to have to keep doing this until we find a vaccine,” he said. “You’re going to be asked to deploy. I can guarantee you, you’re going to go. So, in the time you have between now and when you get in that truck to roll out, get your mind right. Get your families right. Get everything in balance because you are going to deploy and it could be a while.”
“There’s tremendous uncertainty,” he continued. “That’s why it was so important to get down here and look you in the face and thank you for who you are and for what you do. This is a very tough job, and we are very grateful. We’re very proud of all of you.”
The senior leaders demonstrated another form of social distancing they termed COVID-coining, leaving their distinctive metal markers on a table for pickup alongside bottles of hand sanitizer.
Also of interest to the senior leaders is how initial entry training organizations are managing the lag in personnel moves resulting from DOD travel restrictions. Fort Lee’s answer is a nearly completed “Life Support Area” barracks with 500 beds, Wi-Fi and neighboring tent areas that provide dining facility, mobile shower and laundry space.
This stop on the tour also included a briefing on the Combined Arms Support Command’s mission, priorities and the COVID-19 risk mitigation measures that have required creative thinking, especially in advanced individual training classrooms.
“The team is doing well,” Maj. Gen. Rodney D. Fogg, CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general, said in response to a question from the SMA about post morale. “We’re managing where we can to allow telework. We’re also working on the struggle daycare has added, as all child development centers here are closed. Another big concern is our instructors on the front line of this; we just have to keep stressing social distancing and regular cleaning.”
With COVID-19 constantly on his mind, McCarthy next visited Kenner Army Health Clinic to get an overview of their procedures. Lt. Col. Nichelle A. Johnson, the facility’s commander, walked the senior leaders through the screening process in place at the clinic’s single point of entry.
“So, if I were to say I had COVID-like symptoms,” McCarthy posed, “I can’t just show up; I have to get an appointment?”
Johnson clarified the standing policy. “The message we’re putting out is, if you have symptoms, don’t come here. Give us a call. Then we can tell you to show up at a certain time to get tested. We are offering it twice a day. If their symptoms get worse, we send them to the nearest emergency room.”
The ensuing Kenner tour included a visit to the Optometry Clinic to see how staff reconfigured the waiting area for social distancing, and an update on COVID-19 testing capability, to include ongoing team training on the new lab process that produces same-day results.
At their next destination, McCarthy and Grinston toured a 262nd Quartermaster Battalion barracks where the top floor has been set aside for quarantined Soldiers if COVID-19 ever gains a foothold here. In a subsequent discussion, Lt. Col. Heather M. Reilly, battalion commander, noted how her AIT footprint has changed.
“We’ve gone to two-Soldier rooms to give them more space,” Reilly said. “We also changed (physical training). We had 900 Soldiers on that field from 5:30-6:30 a.m., so I had to augment that with more days to break the group in half and give them more room for social distancing. … (My team is using) every piece of grass to make sure we have that distance.”
Fogg later added, “We’ve taken this very seriously from the start. Leaders at all levels have operationalized this as a mission similar to that of wartime. We’ve trained for this; for pushing information from the highest to the lowest level. They are executing the commander’s intent.”
The last stop was the QM School’s Petroleum and Water Division where the senior leaders toured classrooms to see what is being taught and how COVID-19 response measures have been implemented.
“We broke our classes in half,” explained Jose Hernandez, PWD director. “As you can see there are only 15 students in here where we normally have 30. They are dispersed around the room for social distancing. At the end of the day, they’re also sanitizing the classrooms.”
Grinston lightened the formality of the moment when he asked the students to tell him what surprised them and didn’t surprise them about the Army.
“I didn’t realize I would make as many friends, or familial bonds, as I actually did,” Pfc. Renee Reisner responded. “I knew in the Army Soldiers are close as family, but I didn’t realize how true that was until I got through basic training.”
Grinston groaned at her next remark about how bad the food was. “Aw come on, the food is good in the Army,” he assured the Soldier.