FORT POLK, La. — The 32nd Hospital Center change of command ceremony took place June 16 at Fort Polk’s Warrior Field. Col. Lee A. Burnett, outgoing commander, passed the unit’s colors to Col. Lee C. Freeman, incoming commander, as members of the Fort Polk command, 32nd HC Family members and others watched the exchange while practicing social distancing.
Brig. Gen. Patrick D. Frank, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk commanding general, was part of the official party due to the absence of Col. Robert Howe, 1st Medical Brigade commander, Fort Hood, Texas, because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“It is an honor to stand in for Howe while participating in the Army tradition of the change of command for the 32nd HC,” he said.
Frank commented on the necessity of a reduced formation and guest list due to COVID-19, but said the importance of a change of command remains critical to the transition of leadership within Army formations, especially one like the 32nd HC with multiple globally deployed units.
“Today is about our medical professionals — our doctors, nurses, medics and support staff. Without them, our frontline units would not be capable of conducting offensive operations in combat,” he said.
Frank said the professional Soldiers in the 32nd HC, under the leadership of Burnett, had demonstrated adherence to Army standards and discipline.
“The 32nd HC courageously engages the enemies of the United States and lives the line from the Soldier’s Creed — ‘I will never leave a fallen comrade,’” he said.
Frank said every American Soldier knows that the overall success for an Army on the battlefield depends on the prompt evacuation and care of its wounded warriors.
“Without this critical capability, any Army will fail in its mission. The 32nd Hospital Center, led by Lee Burnett, has been at the forefront of Army medical training to maximize unit effectiveness in combat,” he said.
“Burnett focused the 32nd HC Soldiers on the demanding challenges of supporting units engaged in large scale combat operations in the “Box” (training area) at JRTC. With Geronimo Soldiers and enemy helicopters attacking the field hospital, 32nd Soldiers defended their patients and unit, repelling the enemy attack.”
Burnett’s training focus set the conditions for deploying Soldiers to Kosovo and Iraq, as well as reacting to the demanding COVID-19 environment, said Frank.
“Burnett is the definition of a team player. He built cohesive teams and established mutual trust throughout the hospital center and with his teammates across JRTC,” he said.
Burnett said the 32nd Hospital Center has 250 Soldiers at Fort Polk.
“With such a small unit, I’m not exaggerating when I say every Soldier is mission critical. Each individual holds an important role in the hospital whether they keep the generators running, sterilize the instruments or perform surgery. It has been my honor to be part of this unit and see it grow. Everything our unit has accomplished is a result of the determination, hard work and dedication of our junior enlisted, noncommissioned officers and officers,” he said.
Burnett said he and his team provided their Soldiers a plan of attack and then got out of their way.“ In a matter of months, our Soldiers executed the plan by turning around our maintenance programs, pushing our personnel and training readiness into zones of excellence, eventually becoming the best unit in the brigade in nearly every metric,” he said.
Burnett said his Soldiers successfully completed the task of converting from a combat support hospital to a hospital center, requiring the fielding of millions of dollars in new equipment and complete restructuring.
“Following conversion, the unit’s focus was deployment readiness. The unit executed phenomenally during a world class validation exercise that will set the standard for future hospital center rotations here at JRTC,” he said.
Burnett said his Soldiers took that experience in the “Box” and a month later deployed their equipment and personnel to the National Training Center (Fort Irwin, California) as part of a Forces Command exercise. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of them. They did an absolutely fantastic job. As they returned, we shifted gears and prepared simultaneously for participation in the Expert Field Medical Badge and the deployment of Task Force K-4 to Kosovo,” he said.
Burnett said all four EFMB candidates were fit, trained and ready to take on the challenge and successfully obtained their badge.
As for Task Force K-4, Burnett said they couldn’t know they would be deploying into the coming storm of COVID-19 in Europe.
“Upon arrival in theater, they took on a role far beyond what they could have expected and have done an amazing job,” he said.
Burnett said after Louisiana went into lockdown due to COVID-19, the 32nd HC team set up a screening site in direct support of Bayne-Jones Community Hospital and helped set the standard for on-post screening efforts.
Burnett said in April the U.S. Central Command requested an augmentation Task Force to support the medical forces currently in Iraq.
“In weeks, we set up Task Force Evacuare and prepared them to deploy. They are currently downrange providing lifesaving care,” he said. “One month later it was time to send Task Force Vanguard. They will meet up down range, and I know they will be tremendously successful.”
Frank said Freeman, who joins the JRTC and Fort Polk team from the National War College in Washington D.C., is an experienced combat veteran with four deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan.
Frank said Freeman embodies the Warrior Spirit and will join Task Force Vanguard as the deployed 32nd commander in Iraq.
“As a former member of the 115th Combat Support Hospital, we are proud that you have returned home to JRTC and Fort Polk to rejoin the ranks of the Home of Heroes,” he said. “The Soldiers of the 32nd stand with their new commander, ready to answer the nation’s call.”
Freeman thanked everyone for attending and said he was humbled and grateful to once again be stationed at JRTC and Fort Polk. He said the 32nd HC has a long lineage of serving the nation.
“Our Soldiers are currently serving in U.S. Army Europe and we have two Task Forces in the Central Command area of responsibility, whom I will be joining shortly down range. I’m looking forward to it,” he said.