FORT BENNING, Ga. – As the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States continues to rise, the way the Army accomplishes its mission of turning civilians into Soldiers has changed.
In a Facebook town hall last week, Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning’s Commanding General Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe along with Maj. Gen. Lonnie Hibbard, commanding general for Training and Doctrine Command’s Center for Initial Military Training, and U.S. Army Recruiting Command’s Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen, discussed the procedures.
“The Army is a microcosm of our society,” Hibbard said. Since April 10, 45,885 trainees have entered the Army to become Soldiers. About 2% of trainees test positive for COVID-19, and over 99% of those are asymptomatic.
“They start shedding the virus at about Day 5,” he said. “The procedures we’re implementing are to protect those who have not been exposed to COVID-19.”
Screening for the novel coronavirus starts 14 days before future Soldiers report to military entrance processing stations, Hibbard said. Recruiters ask the future Soldiers about their health, their contacts and their travel. The screening is repeated on Day 7, and it becomes daily at Day 5 until the recruits ship from MEPS.
Army guidance for recruits is to be in a “protective bubble” for 14 days prior to shipping, Vereen said. If a recruit is positive, he or she will not ship for basic training.
In accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, cadre screen the recruits when they arrive and then medics test future Soldiers for COVID-19 within 24 hours of arriving at a reception battalion, Donahoe said. They test the trainees again within the first 14 days.
Soldiers who are COVID negative will enter two weeks of controlled monitoring, Hibbard said. If exposed to COVID during travel it takes about five days for symptoms to show.
If Soldiers test positive for COVID here, they transfer to the Fort Benning Recovery Center for their health and safety, Donahoe said. There is medical care 24 hours a day, seven days a week, they get three meals a day and have access to their phones, Wi-Fi, cable TV and movies.
It is critically important to separate those who have COVID-19 from others to lessen the spread of the disease, Donahoe said.
“We’ve got to do that. But we also have to talk with our cadre, drill sergeants and permanent party who are operating (the Fort Benning Recovery Center),” Donahoe said. “We’ve got to lead with empathy; we’ve got to remember what it was like in your first seven, 14 days in the Army. That’s stressful enough (and) to have the added burden of ‘Hey, you have COVID or you’ve been in contact with someone who has COVID.’ We have to remember the added burden on that new Soldier. We have to ensure we overcommunicate to him or her about what they’re going through, about what that process is going to look like as we return them to the training pipeline.”
Sgt. Emily Dwyer and Cpl. Jessica Keese are just two of the licensed practical nurses with 14th Combat Support Hospital who are working at Fort Benning’s Recovery Center.
“There is a lot of fear regarding this virus,” said Dwyer, who became a licensed practical nurse two years ago. She and the 14th CSH deployed to New York City at the height of the city’s infection. “We try to be proactive instead of reactive. Our approach is education – to assure the Soldiers ‘we are keeping you safe, we are giving you the best medical care you can receive, this is how this virus works and this is how we’re going to help you recover.’
“We take our jobs very seriously,” she continued. “We answer any, and all, questions they may have. Our goal is to keep them safe and ourselves safe.”
The positive cases are housed in the isolation camp. The Soldiers there have the sole mission of recovery and returning to training, Dwyer explained.
“We provide medical checks. They have accountability formations, chow three times a day and are authorized to work out outside if they feel up to it,” she said.
Soldiers who have had close contact with a Soldier who is COVID positive will move into the quarantine side of the recovery center, Donahoe said. They will be in the facility for 14 days and released back to their training cohort if they are asymptomatic for the last 24 hours.
“If they are not showing any symptoms, we’re going to return them to their training. The vast majority of those Soldiers will return to the element from which they were training and it will not affect their graduation date,” he said.
While Soldiers are in quarantine, they get expert medical care, Keese said. The LPNs test the Soldiers for COVID when they get there and then monitor them for symptoms daily. The cadre and drill sergeants teach classes and the Soldiers do scheduled physical training.
“We see every single patient every single day,” said Keese, who enlisted in the Reserves as an intelligence analyst and transferred to the active component when she could train to become a LPN.
“Our goal as a medical team is to ensure they have the highest standard of care – that’s from prescribing medication to taking temperatures, taking oxygen levels, ensuring they have basic needs, hygiene. We ensure their quality of life is held at the highest standard we can provide,” Dwyer said.
“These procedures we’re taking up front – of protecting the force immediately when they arrive – that actually has long term effect across the Army because we’re eradicating COVID-19 to the best of our ability within the first two weeks,” Hibbard said.
To watch the generals’ Facebook town hall, go to https://www.facebook.com/USAREC/videos/613653059293298