Fort Benning Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. – Thousands of Soldiers currently in entry-level training here will get to head home for the holidays this month but under "deliberate" pandemic precautions, officials said in a video streamed online Dec. 8.
Soldiers will start leaving Fort Benning Dec. 17 and 18, and must be back at their units here by Jan. 3, officials said in the video.
The travel is known as holiday block leave.
During the video, which was streamed on Facebook, commanders of training units and other key Fort Benning officials spelled out:
• COVID-19 precautions to be followed while on leave and after.
• Dates for departure and return.
• Means of transportation to be used.
• Rules for picking up and returning a trainee by vehicle.
• Proper Soldier conduct during leave.
• What trainees should do if they get sick while on leave or hit a delay heading back.
• Rules for picking up or dropping off a trainee at Fort Benning by private vehicle.
• What recreational and other services are on tap for those trainees who spend the leave period at Fort Benning.
Also during the video the panel of speakers answered leave-related questions sent in from members of the Fort Benning community, including Soldiers' relatives eager to see them.
"This time of year we look forward to holiday block leave opportunity, where trainees and training cadre have an opportunity to reconnect with family and loved ones," said the video's moderator, Ben Garrett, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning. MCoE trains Soldiers to serve in the Infantry and Armor, which comprise the Army's maneuver force.
"Holiday block leave is essential to the well-being of all our trainees and cadre, and this year we are facing a different environment with COVID-19," he said.
"Holiday block leave will be conducted in a deliberate manner, reinforcing all CDC guidelines to protect the health of our force," said Garrett, in a reference to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Protective measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 must continue during holiday block leave," he said. "Remember to wash your hands frequently, wear your mask, and practice good social distancing."
Under a set of carefully orchestrated arrangements put in place by Fort Benning leaders, the trainees will travel by any of three types of transportation: private vehicle, Greyhound bus, or plane, Col. Dawson A. Plummer, commander of the 194th Armored Brigade, said in the video.
Departure and Return Dates
"For everybody out there watching today," said Col. Ryan B. Wylie, commander of the 198th Infantry Brigade, "I'm sure this is the question you're most excited for us to answer: 'When is my Soldier coming home?'"
"Now, when exactly they depart will depend on what mode of transportation they're using to get home," he said, and outlined the following schedule:
• Those traveling by personal vehicle can be picked up starting midnight Dec. 17.
• Those going by bus will start departing Fort Benning at 6 a.m. Dec. 17.
• Those flying out from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport may depart "no earlier than 8 a.m. Dec. 18.
"And again, all service members must be back to Fort Benning no later than 3 January," said Wylie.
"And we recommend that if they're coming in by flight, that they have that flight to Atlanta by 1800 – or 6 p.m. – on the evening of 3 January, to give them time to get on a bus at the airport and then make it to Fort Benning by the end of the day on the 3rd of January," Wylie said.
Call if There's a Problem
Should illness, travel delays or other problems arise during leave, Soldiers are to call their units right away, said Wylie.
"If your Soldier's delayed in their return, they should immediately contact their chain-of-command," he said. "And each of your Soldiers will be given a contact card which will have key phone numbers that they can contact in case there is an emergency or in case their flight or travel back is delayed."
If Sick During Leave
Officials also gave guidance on what should be done if a Soldier gets sick on leave.
Given the rate at which COVID-19 has been spreading, "we understand that one of our Soldiers may become infected while they are at home," said Col. Bart G. Hensler, commander of the 197th Infantry Brigade.
"Immediately seek health care, to make sure that the situation is stable," he said. "And once it is, where going to ask you to do two things procedurally:
"First is to contact your drill sergeant and the chain-of-command so we understand what your Soldier's situation is and we can work with everybody individually," said Hensler.
"Second, from the day that you test positive for COVID-19, we ask that you start a 14-day quarantine period," he said. "The expectation is that your Soldier will stay in his place of residence for 14 days until the virus has had a chance to run its course – he's asymptomatic – and then able to safely return to Fort Benning."
Don't Come Back When Sick
"It's absolutely critical that anyone who is COVID-positive or symptomatic with any other type of infectious disease, such as the flu, fever, chills, do not return to Fort Benning," Hensler said. "We have a large population coming back on the 3rd of January," he said, "and we don't want to infect the rest of them.
"Do not come back," he said. "We will work with every Soldier individually as long as we understand their circumstances. Once they return, whether that's by car, Greyhound bus or air, we will make sure that we're there to pick up that Soldier and successfully reintegrate them back into training," Hensler said.
If Return Trip Hits Delay
"The first thing that happens if you run into a problem returning from holiday block leave, is don't panic, said Wylie. "We understand that things like this can happen. You may miss your flight ... You may have a vehicle that breaks down on your way back to Fort Benning. And again, we understand all of these things can happen at certain times. And so don't panic.
"But we would ask ya, have your Soldier immediately contact their chain-of-command," he said.
Once Back at Fort Benning
"Upon returning, your Soldiers will go through a one-day reintegration period, and that will happen on the 4th of January, and then we'll immediately move back into training," said Wylie.
"So on the 5th of January your Soldier will pick up training essentially where they left off, with consideration for the fact that they've been resting for two weeks," he said. "So we'll take that into consideration with our physical training.
COVID Precautions Returning From Leave
"While training is important to us," said Wylie, "our number one priority is the health and welfare of our Soldiers and cadre. And for that reason, preventing and mitigating the spread of COVID is gonna be really important to us as we return from block leave.
"This effort will really start before your Soldier even returns to Fort Benning," he said. "On the day prior to returning, your Soldier's required to fill out a COVID pre-screening checklist that will ask them to fill out questions about their health and exposure to COVID.
"Once they arrive back to Fort Benning or at the Atlanta airport," said Wylie, "they'll proceed through a screening process that includes having their temperature taken, answering questions about their health, and reviewing their pre-screening checklist.
"Those who have symptoms of COVID or have been exposed to COVID will be separated and then taken for additional testing and screening," he said.
"Once back at Fort Benning we will follow strict protocols," he said. "Many of these have been in place since the beginning of the pandemic."
They include mask-wear, social distancing and frequent hand-washing, as well as daily temperature checks and daily COVID screening interviews, Wylie said.
The Fort Benning Recovery Center
Those who show symptoms of, or test positive for, COVID-19 here, are cared for at The Fort Benning Recovery Center, said Wylie.
"This center exists to allow your Soldier time to rest, recover and prepare to return to training," he said. "This facility is operated by a professional cadre to include 24-hour medical support. It provides all quality-of-life support for your Soldier, to include morale, welfare and recreation activities."
Soldiers at the center "have unlimited access to their phone to ensure they can maintain connection with loved ones," Wylie said.