DETROIT ARSENAL, Mich. — When the Soldiers training at the Tank-automotive and Armaments Command’s Fort Lee Forward Maintenance Expansion were faced with a shortage of masks early in the COVID-19 pandemic, they quickly put their fleet of sewing machines to work towards a solution.
The Soldiers, students at the Quartermaster Army Parachute Riggers Advanced Individual Training school supported by the TACOM FMX team, were training to be parachute riggers. Part of the curriculum, according to Roy Lewis, a former Army rigger and current machine repair technician on the FMX team, involves learning how to repair parachutes using a variety of sewing machines and sewing equipment.
“There are three phases to training,” Lewis explained. “There’s a parachute pack phase, there’s a parachute air-delivery phase where they group equipment and the parachute to push out the back of an aircraft, now called air delivery phase, and they have the maintenance phase where they repair the parachutes. With every jump, a parachute is ripped or torn.”
“The maintenance phase, in my eyes, is the most critical phase. If you don't have serviceable parachutes, you don't have a parachute jump.”
Hence the need for more than 130 sewing machines ranging from light duty to heavier duty to larger, automated, computer controlled machines; machines that could easily be re-purposed to manufacturing surgical-quality face masks.
“Our students had a mandate to mask up,” Lewis said.
Masks for purchase were in very short supply at the time, so the school embarked on what would become a three month mission to manufacture 6,500 masks to supply the students, the school cadre and support personnel like Lewis, and have enough to distribute to emergency services and medical personnel on Fort Lee.
“That was their goal,” Lewis recalled. “That's what they wanted to do. They had a daily total of 250 to 300, which means these sewing machines were really pushed to this task.”
Lewis further explained that student Soldiers participating had already graduated from the rigger school, but were prevented from traveling to their gaining units due to pandemic travel restrictions.
Since Lewis was on call to keep the machines up and running, he jumped in to manufacture masks, joining another machine repair technician and school cadre for the cause.
“Everybody took a turn,” he added.
The masks were manufactured in a sanitized environment and under the careful review and direction of Fort Lee-based medical professionals. All workers wore personal protective equipment and adhered to protocols designed to maximize mask sterility and safety for use.