FORT BENNING, Ga. – Soldiers and civilians here must not tire in the fight against COVID-19 but keep their guard up – a stance needed for Fort Benning to meet its paramount mission: training about a third of the Army's combat troops every year, its new commanding general said July 20.
"COVID is not tired, so we can't be either," said Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahoe, who became commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning July 17. He replaced Maj. Gen. Gary M. Brito, who moves to a new assignment at the Pentagon and promotion to lieutenant general.
Donahoe made his remarks during a nearly 15-minute talk live-streamed on Facebook.
Topics included further efforts to help protect Fort Benning from the spread of COVID-19, its cordial relationship with surrounding communities, the region's large community of military veterans, and Fort Benning's vital role in training Army combat forces, as well as its training of troops from partner nations.
The MCoE is the institutional heart and soul of the Army's Infantry and Armor branches, and trains Soldiers for both. The two branches together comprise the Army's maneuver force. MCoE also trains those hoping to become paratroopers, Rangers, and snipers, among others.
In all, MCoE trains about 35 percent of the Army every year.
"COVID is not tired, so we can't be either." – Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahoe, commanding general, U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning
In remarks on the pandemic, Donahoe said he was zeroed in on "what we've got to do to protect the force in the age of COVID, because Fort Benning's mission is too important to stop. So we've got to protect the force that conducts that training, so that we can continue to train those critical skill sets that the Army requires.
"We've still gotta train new Infantrymen," he said. "We've still gotta train new scouts and tankers. We've still gotta train new Airborne paratroopers. We've still gotta train the next generation of Army Rangers.
"Our mission here on Fort Benning is too valuable to the Army to let that slip away," Donahoe said. "So what we do every day, is we build the next generation of leaders. We build the next rifleman, the next tank crews, the next scouts, that are gonna go out to the Army. And that's an incredible task that the Army's chartered us with doing. And so we've gotta be able to do that.
"And the only way we can do that is by remaining a healthy force to do that with," he said.
"COVID is not tired," he said, "so we can't be either...And so the desires we have to go back to what used to be normal are desires to ramp down our vigilance."
He understood first-hand, he told the online audience, that living daily with COVID-19 precautions can be wearisome.
"I fully understand it," said Donahoe, citing his previous assignment in South Korea, where U.S. Forces Korea has taken notably stringent measures to stem the spread of COVID-19. Because of those measures, he was unable to leave his duty station, Camp Humphreys, for a four-month stretch, he said.
"I didn't leave that installation from the 6th of February to the 6th of June," said Donahoe. "So I understand how we can get a little stir crazy and we want to get out.
"And so this is a problem of stamina and discipline," he said. "We've got to demonstrate, that as United States Soldiers, that as family members of Soldiers, of contractors, and DA civilians in the greatest Army in the world, that we've got the stamina, and that we can display the discipline required to remain COVID-free."
A pivotal part of keeping training on track is keeping the training cadre healthy, Donahoe said.
"For the cadre, we can't train if we're on sick call," he said. "And so if our Soldiers are exposed to the virus, and then we've gotta take them out of their job – their day job of training America's next group of Soldiers and leaders – then we will fail at our mission."
To further strengthen the safeguards, he said, on the same day he assumed command he issued a new general order, General Order No. 5.
"It lays out requirements for all those individuals who need access to Fort Benning," he said.
The order, Donahoe noted, "actually applies not just to our uniformed service members but it applies to our civilian component, it applies to our contractors that come on the installation, and it also applies for our family members. And there's a couple of critical things that I need you to understand."
He then highlighted a few key elements of the order.
One was the ongoing requirement to wear masks, which he called "that first barrier" against the pandemic.
"Our mask-wearing is the first line of defense when we can't social distance," said Donahoe. "So when we're out in the community, when we're here on the installation, when we cannot socially distance, we've gotta put up that first barrier, in order to protect ourselves and to protect others, if our individuals happen to be carrying the disease.
"And so we're gonna do that, where we have to – both on and off the installation," he said.
The general order bans eating in enclosed or sit-in restaurants off post and use of indoor gyms off post.
"We're gonna require anyone comin' on the installation, that they don't eat in enclosed, sit-in restaurants downtown, until we get past this significant rise in the case load, in the disease, in the pandemic," he said. "We're gonna require that if folks want to go to the gym downtown, they can't go to an indoor gym facility.
"So," he said, "I'd ask you to double down and to reengage with your peers and with your family and friends off the installation, to ensure that we are doing the right thing. It is that important, not only to Fort Benning but to the Army and to the nation."
Also during the live-stream, Donahoe lauded the cordial ties between Fort Benning and surrounding communities in the Chattahoochee Valley. He and his family had been at Fort Benning during a previous assignment, from 2013 to 2016, and welcomed the chance to return. "It's great to be back," he said.
"You've got this incredibly vibrant community up and down the Chattahoochee Valley," said Donahoe. "It really is a great home for us to come to from around the Army, to Fort Benning, to really then tap into what's going on here in Columbus."
Fort Benning also maintains "incredible partnerships throughout the region," including, among others, those with Columbus State University and Columbus Technical College, he said.
Also during his remarks Donahoe spoke of the broad impact Fort Benning's MCoE has on the Army and beyond, and said it amounts to "much more" than the fact that the U.S. Army Armor School and U.S. Army Infantry School are both located here.
Fort Benning also hosts "incredibly important tenant commands" for the Army, including a battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division, and the 75th Ranger Regiment, which is headquartered here with two of its battalions, he said. "They live, train and deploy from right here on Fort Benning," he said of the Rangers.
"And then when you talk about our impact, Fort Benning's impact on the world, more international Soldiers and officers will train here at Fort Benning this year than anywhere else in the Department of Defense," said Donahoe.
Much of that, he said, is because of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), which brings "Soldiers and leaders from all across the Americas" and trains them. "There's nowhere else in the world where something like that is done," he said. "It's just an incredible component of what Fort Benning is and does every day."
Foreign military liaison staffers from many partner nations also live on Fort Benning, he said, "from places like Brazil, the Netherlands, Germany, South Korea, Chile. You name the partner nation. And it's this incredibly rich texture that they bring to what we do."
In addition, Fort Benning excels at "high-risk" training of importance to building the Army's fighting forces, Donahoe said.
He gave as one example, those who train to become paratroopers at the U.S. Army Airborne School here.
"About 14 to 15,000 young men and women will exit the door of a high-performance aircraft with a parachute for the first time in their lives, and they're gonna do that this year here at Fort Benning," he said.
"And we do it virtually error-free," he said. "And that's a testament to the noncommissioned officers that are in that aircraft with those Soldiers during that execution of their first five parachute jumps" as well as "the two weeks of training on the ground here before they get in the airplanes, where those noncommissioned officers make that incredible investment in those Soldiers, to ensure they can complete that high-risk training as safely but as effectively as we can.
"We do all of the Ranger training," he said. "It starts and ends here at Fort Benning."
And he offered a further example, the training of Abrams tank crews.
"First time a young man or woman will pull the trigger on a M1A2 SEP tank and its 120 mm smoothbore cannon, it's gonna happen right here at Fort Benning," he said. "And we're gonna do that about 10,000 times a year. It's an absolutely incredible experience for anybody who's ever been inside the turret of an M1 tank to do that.
"And to do it safely, is again, the testament of the professionalism of the cadre that are here on Fort Benning," he said.
Fort Benning, Donahoe said at one point in his remarks, stamps the Army's maneuver force with what he termed "the Benning way."
"We're gonna take all of our Armor cavalrymen, our tankers, our Infantrymen, they're gonna start their career here," he said. "Whether they're a junior enlisted Soldier or a junior commissioned officer, we're gonna bring them back here to Fort Benning through the entirety of their career and we're gonna impart on them the Benning way.
"We're gonna impart on them the great traditions of what has always been done since 1918 here on the banks of the Chattahoochee," said Donahoe, "which is a professionally delivered training experience, as we help build and train the Army, every day. That's what we do."