WASHINGTON, D.C. – In 245 years, the U.S. Army has fought wars and conducted stability and support operations overseas and on home soil, often while fighting deadly diseases at the same time. Continental soldiers faced smallpox outbreaks during the Revolutionary War; their descendants had to contend with a massive influenza pandemic during World War I. Now, as U.S. forces continue to carry out their various missions worldwide, U.S. Army historians are documenting stories from the front line of the COVID-19 battle across the United States, in an effort to preserve the lessons of current events for future generations.
“People now are looking back at the Spanish Flu [the 1918 flu pandemic], seeking lessons learned, what we did then, and trying to determine what they can apply now,” said Capt. Michael Loveland, a military historian with the U.S. Army Center of Military History. “But to be able to do this effectively with something from our past, someone has to actually collect the documents and artifacts, interview the participants, and generally capture what happened, or else historians won’t have the necessary material upon which to base their writing and reflections.”
Loveland serves with a team of U.S. Army history professionals mobilized across the United States as part of the Department of Defense (DoD) COVID-19 support operations. This team consists of Military History Detachments (MHDs), Army historians, liaison officers, and command historians.
The DoD responded to the worldwide pandemic known as COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 by creating task forces, headquartered from U.S. Army North, which is acting as U.S. Northern Command’s Joint Force Land Component Command (JFLCC). As part of these task forces, mobile medical teams and support elements have deployed across the nation to support efforts to care for those affected by the pandemic.
“Every organization within the Army has been affected by the pandemic, and they have all made different decisions about how to adjust to this. It’s critical that the Army Historical Program documents these adjustments for continued reference, lessons learned, and to tell the Army’s story to the nation,” said Charles Bowery, executive director of the U.S. Army Center of Military History.
From mid-March through the present, mobilized historians have been documenting the efforts of more than 5,700 medical professionals and DoD personnel, as they have assembled field hospitals and supported 128 mission assignments approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency nationwide. Historians also have monitored the Army’s own response to the pandemic, especially in terms of measures taken to protect the soldiers and civilians who carry out the Army’s missions.
“Every Army organization has adapted its operations to continue the mission during the pandemic,” Bowery said. “A coverage plan also allows the Army to evaluate support to the joint force and to federal and state governments during the crisis.” By observing the steps that the Army has taken during this critical time, historians are collecting information on the ways in which soldiers and leaders at all levels have acted and reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bowery explained what he calls actionable history. “Leaders at all levels need to be historically minded,” he continued. “You can’t do all of this until you assemble a record, through documents, oral histories, and operational summaries. That is why this mission is critical; it will give future leaders at all levels the ability to understand the past and make more informed decisions.”
Supporting elements and individuals include the U.S. Army Reserve 27th MHD from Fort Detrick, Maryland, the 90th MHD from Salt Lake City, Utah, the 101st MHD from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the 315th MHD from Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, the 126th MHD from the Massachusetts Army National Guard, and liaison officers, archivists, and other history professionals from the U.S. Army Center of Military History. This geographically dispersed team has collected historical records of the Army’s response to the pandemic and collaborated via video- and teleconferencing to remain safely physically distant from one another, all while supporting one cohesive mission.
Across the nation, historians helped prepare their commands for the current operations and readiness for future needs.
“Decades from now, we [will] need to understand how all of these pieces contributed to fixing the issue or prolonging it,” U.S. Army Capt. Julian Woodhouse, 315th MHD, said. Woodhouse is an Army Reserve historian from Manhattan, who has been mobilized to active duty to support Task Force (TF) New York/North East. “I’m seeing one thing as a New Yorker and yet working this operation, experiencing this as a policy and [an] action.”
Maj. Ingrid Weissenfluh, command historian for the 377th Theater Sustainment Command and liaison officer for TF West, drew upon previous historical collection experiences to offer information to her leadership and much more.
“I am making our previous responses relevant to what we are doing right now,” she said. “I brought in Spanish flu information because of the papers I’ve seen written on it and the similarities, as far as Hurricane Katrina and the efforts in [earthquake response in] Haiti. . . . Everyone in this region has been impacted by Katrina, but also this headquarters has worked through the mobilizations to both, so it is relevant.”
As COVID-19 operations come to an end, so, too, will this unique history mission, having captured and collected another integral piece of the nation’s story.
“Soldiers love to do their mission. When you finally get to do what you’ve been training to do, it’s the most amazing thing,” Weissenfluh said. “These MHDs are getting history as it happens, and that process is alive to them.”