WASHINGTON -- More than 200 enlisted Soldiers serving throughout the Middle East and Africa were slated to travel to Kuwait for the Army's Basic Leader Course in March. Then the military banned nonessential travel in response to the increasing threat of COVID-19.
"I found out I wasn't going to BLC the day I was leaving," said Army Sgt. Robert M. Raitano, the noncommissioned officer in charge of intelligence with the 207th Regional Support Group. "My bags were packed."
The three-week course is crucial for young Soldiers. It is the first official step in learning how to be a noncommissioned officer, and the class is required before they can be promoted to sergeant. Even if personnel can get a waiver while on deployment, they still are required to attend the school when they return to the United States.
Some Soldiers had waited for years for the opportunity to take the course. Army Sgt. Aquenda R. Roundtree, the operations noncommissioned officer in charge with the 248th Area Support Medical Company, said she had been trying to go to the school since 2017, but her transfers among various Georgia National Guard units derailed those efforts. The latest cancellation promised another long delay.
"I was, like, 'Wow – again?'" she said, "because they kept pushing it back."
In April, the NCO Leadership Center of Excellence delivered a solution: an online version of the class supplemented by instructors stationed at each base. Despite the course being primarily online, the students were still required to lead physical fitness training while maintaining social distancing requirements.
The students' units provided the assistant instructors. At Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, the 207th Regional Support Group and the 248th Area Support Medical Company combined efforts to create a class for five students. Army Staff Sgt. Heather Bojarski, a small group leader with the U.S. Central Command NCO Academy at Camp Buehring, said other participants were spread throughout more than a half-dozen countries – all reporting back to the school in Kuwait.
The assistant instructors at Al Asad attempted to recreate a school environment as much as possible. They reserved a meeting room and had internet connections installed so the students could train together. The NCOs scheduled physical training sessions in the morning prior to classes and had the students march to meals together to practice drill and ceremonies.
"I was thinking we'd just be sitting there online all the time," Roundtree said. "I didn't expect everything that happened."
During class hours, students regularly responded to questions and reacted to each other's discussion points using their laptops. Outside of class, they had to prepare written papers and a public speaking presentation. Roundtree, who was the first student to serve as class leader, helped ingrain the standards and common procedures their group followed throughout.
"We always tried to stay ahead of the game," she said. "Everyone was held accountable so nobody fell behind."
Raitano, who said he originally joined the military five years ago with no specific goals in mind, said the class helped him clarify his understanding of leadership, followership and what kind of person he wants to be. He zeroed in on servant leadership, particularly after helping classmates with the required school tasks.
"It took constant hours of practice and preparation," he said. "Being able to see results from that was very inspiring."
Teamwork became essential as the students aided each other in their studies and practices for the practical exams. Students gathered after class hours to work on drills.
"We never really had a moment where we feuded or didn't agree with each other," Raitano said. "We came together fairly well."
Both Raitano and Roundtree, similar to others in their class, received their promotion to sergeant shortly after graduating.
"There were a lot of things I didn't know," Raitano said of the lessons he learned from the classes. "There are things I will pick up and use in my day-to-day life."
From her office in Kuwait, Bojarski said the remote class program has continued to be successful. According to the school, out of 201 students in the first class, 193 graduated in May. The second class started in June.
"I liked the challenge," she said of the emergency BLC. "I liked that it tapped our resiliency….and it pushed me to think outside the box."
The unique situation has led to the innovative use of technology in some cases. When one of the students was having trouble passing their physical resilience training drills, the assistant instructor used a video call to contact Bojarski and let her watch for issues.
"I could actually see what the sergeant was doing," she said.
Likewise, in subsequent BLC classes the school increased its use of the online Defense Collaboration System, which has increased the small-group leaders' ability to communicate with remote students every day.
"It made me more accessible to them," she said, noting it allowed them to problem solve together. "That's what we're here for."
(Army Sgt. 1st Class Gary Witte is assigned to the 207th Regional Support Group.)