JOINT BASE LANGLEY - EUSTIS, VA – They say necessity is the mother of all invention. The recent coronavirus pandemic certainly provided the necessity, so in response, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command invented the “new normal” for business that focused on safety and efficiency in an extremely short amount of time.
To ensure the nation is prepared to defend itself against all enemies foreign and domestic, training must go on. However, a pandemic like COVID-19 has a tendency of throwing a wrench or two into the works. Signs of the virus slowly, but surely, started to appear in some of the training ranks. The positive cases were extremely small across the Army, but still large enough to warrant senior leaders to take action.
“We saw it coming from Korea,” said Lt. Gen. Theodore D. Martin, TRADOC Deputy Commanding General and Chief of Staff. “We were watching it, observing what Gen. Abrams [U.S. Army Gen. Robert B. Abrams, U.S. Forces Korea Commanding General] was doing over there. Gen. Funk said [Gen. Paul E. Funk II, TRADOC Commanding General], ‘contact them now for best practices.’ So, before COVID-19 plowed into us, we started to reset immediately to decide how we were going to defend against this new enemy. The first thing Gen. Funk did was operationalize the headquarters. Everyone on staff new what he meant and wanted.”
TRADOC established the use of a COVID-19 specific crisis action team, which is capable of operating an emergency operation center 24 hours per day, and is responsible for providing timely and accurate information to leadership.
Defending the Future Force
The pipeline, as it’s referred to by U.S. Army Recruiting Command, starts as recruiters begin to engage with prospective recruits. The numbers required to maintain the Army can be staggering to some. Until COVID-19 cases started appearing, the pipeline was a well-oiled machine producing the nation’s finest Soldiers, like clockwork. The question became, how does this well-oiled machine continue in this new environment.
"We were the first service to come out of the [recruiting] stations and go 100 percent virtual,” said Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, USAREC’s Commanding General, in a recent interview with Military.com. “We called it early because ... I did not want to put our force and our force's families at risk."
In addition to traditional enlistees, the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps commissions approximately 6,000 second lieutenants each year, equaling approximately 70 percent of the officers entering the Army. Historically, graduation and commissioning ceremonies are an honored tradition. This year they are still important and treasured, but now virtual.
Thankfully, the Army began its fiscal 2020 recruiting mission "about 4,000 or 5,000 ahead," Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville told defense reporters at an April 30 Pentagon briefing.
A New Work Environment
Across TRADOC units, both uniformed personnel and civilian employees were instructed to start teleworking where appropriate. The normal way of conducting business was changing, but training never stopped at any level. Mitigating the spread of illness within the ranks was a priority, and remains the top focus, with each change to the normal procedures.
“One of the toughest challenges we had was, on average we take in about 100,000 new Soldiers per year,” Martin added. “How are we going to take in eight to 10,000 trainees per month? These new trainees are potential vectors for the virus.”
TRADOC leaders created “safety bubbles” to allow Soldiers to continue to train by shifting classroom specific training to the first two weeks of Basic Combat Training. During this two weeks, trainees could maintain six feet of social distance and be screened daily. This is now referred to as the “2 + 8” training model. After that initial two weeks, these Soldiers continue with traditional hands-on training with other COVID-free trainees extending their safety bubble into the remainder of their training.
Recently, Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), along with Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, visited Fort Benning with an emphasis on the importance of in-person training.
He said in a statement released by Perdue’s office: “Soldiers cannot achieve readiness purely through virtual means, and Soldiers certainly can’t telework to combat. We take our responsibility to protect our communities as seriously as our duty to defend this nation, and we will continue to use every reasonable means to meet both standards.
“The operational mission at Fort Benning didn’t change. They adapted to the situation, implemented new protocols, and found a way to keep training soldiers,” Perdue said in a statement to Breitbart News recently. “Fort Benning continues to lead the way, even during the COVID-19 crisis.”
Moving the Force to Continue Training
One obstacle TRADOC encountered was how to safely transport BCT graduates to their next phase of training, Advanced Individual Training, or their first active duty station following AIT.
Historically, after graduating BCT, trainees traveled via commercial buses or aircraft on to their next step of training for their particular military occupational skill. However, by following the old method trainees may be exposed to others who are carriers of the virus. Leaders determined the “safety bubble” must continue to protect Soldiers as they moved to continue their necessary training.
Private buses and airplanes were contracted to ensure the Soldiers were moved from point A to point B without coming in contact with anyone other than those confirmed to be free of the virus. Disinfecting methods were used to clean the buses and airplanes prior to boarding. The buses were equipped with onboard lavatories, which eliminated the need for frequent restroom stops, potentially exposing Soldiers to those outside of their bubble in the community. Fifty percent seating capacity was observed to allow the trainees to maintain social distancing throughout their travel.
Once the trainees arrived at their destination, a battery of testing resumed to ensure they were still symptom free before being integrated into their next phase of training. These extra steps ensured both the trainees arriving, and the cadre members receiving them, were all kept safe from the virus.
“I’m really proud of the point of the spear,” Martin said. “We couldn’t have pulled this off without the drill sergeants, the cadre members, all of the noncommissioned officers who maintained the required discipline to ensure all of the safety measures were being observed.”
It’s possible this way of doing business is a one-time consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, but the recent inventions spawned by the necessity may live on in infamy, or grand invention, depending on how one views it, for decades to come.