FORT BENNING, Ga. – The commanding general here has reminded Soldiers they must now wear masks or other face coverings when around others, and also called on members of the Fort Benning community to seek help quickly if the pressures of living under COVID-19 precautions lead to tensions at home.
Maj. Gen. Gary M. Brito, commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning made the comments during an online COVID-19 town hall live-streamed on Facebook April 14. It was the fifth COVID-19 town hall Brito has held weekly since March 17.
Appearing with Brito during the town hall were Col. Matthew Scalia, commander, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning, and Col. Melissa J. Hoffman, commander of the post's Martin Army Community Hospital. The three answered questions from the online audience on a range of COVID-19-related topics.
The Department of Defense on April 5th directed that "all individuals" on U.S. military property wear cloth face-covering when they cannot keep six feet of social distance in public areas or work centers. That directive was in line with guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Commissaries and exchanges are adhering to the directive, with employees and patrons now required to wear face-coverings.
Brito's comments on masks were in answer to questions on how the new face-covering rule applied at the post's commissary and PX, what type of mask was required, and whether the Army would be issuing such masks.
Guidance on Masks
"All military personnel [are] expected [to] and will wear some face-covering or a mask, whether at the PX, shoppette, gas station or what have you, when they're in a situation or environment where they cannot maintain social distancing of six feet or so," said Brito.
"If you're walkin' into the commissary, walkin' into the PX, even though there may be very... few patrons there, walkin' into the hospital, somewhere where you maybe come within six feet or a few feet of somebody, you should be wearing a mask, I expect you to be wearing a mask. And if you're military – you will – wear a mask, just like I will," Brito said.
He used the example of the sprawling MCoE headquarters building to underscore that masks are now required.
Until recently, the building's long corridors bustled with Soldiers, civilian employees, and service members in glittering dress uniforms graduating from training courses, accompanied by visiting family members dressed for the ceremonies. But with COVID-19 precautions now in place, including a halt to ceremonies, graduations and other large gatherings, restrictions on visitors and travel, and dispersion of staff to telework, the building has largely emptied out.
"This building's a great example," Brito said of the MCoE headquarters, from which the town hall was being live-streamed.
"Large hallways, and you may walk from one end to the other and see nobody, but a mask is in the pocket at all times," said Brito. "Soldiers at the CQ desk within four feet of each other," he said of the building's reception desk. "They have the mask on at all times."
He also gave guidance on when Soldiers do not necessarily need to have the mask on.
"So if you're on an individual run, or walk or run with your wife, or bike ride with your kids, of course, at that point, does not require the mask," he said.
The Army, he said, is moving to have masks produced for eventual issue to Soldiers.
"As soon as we get 'em and as soon as we can make them available, we'll make them available," he said.
In the interim, Soldiers are complying with the directive by improvising their own, and in some cases wearing masks or wearing those made by family members, he noted.
"I went up to see some training the other day," said Brito. "It was Officer Candidate School, and those Soldiers were in the field when this mask policy came out. So many improvised, using T-shirts and bandanas and other things, that worked quite well."
Brito reminded the audience that for Soldiers in uniform, masks should be in a color that matches the current Army camouflage uniform, known as OCP for Operational Camouflage Pattern. Its colors are brown and green.
"For the Soldiers, I will ask, if you're in uniform, it's something that matches the uniform, and you've seen that in the DoD posters and stuff that have come out," he said, touching his OCP uniform as he spoke into the camera.
"We are not at a point now where we have an Army-issued face mask, like the patrol cap and uniform that many of us have," said Brito.
Brito acknowledged the supportive role of Soldiers' family members who've been making masks for the Soldiers and themselves, and with an effort to get the colors right.
"I very much appreciate what the moms and spouses and Soldiers have done for themselves from the mask, just trying to adhere to the color," said Brito. "Drive on!"
When in civilian clothes, however, the color need not match OCP colors, Brito said.
"Any colors that don't match this," said Brito, again touching his uniform, "if you're in civilian clothes, drive on. Do what you need to do. But in uniform, try and maintain some level of uniformity."
At Fort Benning's PX and commissary, courtesy patrols are in place, checking whether shoppers have proper identification and are wearing masks.
"With the courtesy patrols there," said Scalia, "trying to implement this policy, as General Brito has said previously, please be patient with them, as the conditions have changed and the rules have changed."
Call for Medical Advice, Help with Domestic Tensions
Addressing one of the numerous other audience questions taken up during the town hall, officials encouraged community members to seek help quickly and without hesitation if they start to see signs that changes brought about by the pandemic are leading to domestic stresses.
"From a family perspective, this is indeed a challenge," said Brito. "I would definitely seek the advice and support" available through chaplains and mental health professionals.
"Please do not wait," said Scalia. "If you're startin' to feel that stress now, best that you address it early in these very unusual times for us all."
He encouraged community members to visit the Fort Benning COVID-19 " Information Resource" online.
"This has the latest information," said Scalia. "That is updated regularly."
That same site features a "Where to go for Help" page, which includes listings for the Chaplain's Family Life Center, and Army Family Advocacy, among others.
Hoffman said health-related advice is available by calling the following:
• The Nurse Advice Line, available round-the-clock at 1-800-874-2273. Callers should select option 1.
• The hospital's own COVID-19 hotline, available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., is 762-408-2819.
• The Army Public Health Center's COVID-19 hotline: 1-800-984-8523.
The hospital also has behavioral health counseling available, Hoffman said.
And additional health care information is available on the hospital's Facebook page.
The hospital is now able to conduct COVID-19 testing, she said.
And she repeated advice she's given in previous town halls on what to do if symptoms of COVID-19 appear.
"If you're exhibiting signs and symptoms of COVID-19, we do recommend you stay home and provide self-care," said Hoffman.
"But if you do feel your symptoms are worsening, you have questions, we do advise you to call," she said.
"If the advice is to proceed to Martin Army for testing, that individual will be able to best advise you on how to do that," said Hoffman. "They will direct you appropriately, and then, based on signs and symptoms and medical determination, we'll be able to test you accordingly."