JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –This week Soldiers training at the U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence (MEDCoE) departed via various modes of travel for their Holiday Block Leave (HBL). This annual event allows MEDCoE Soldiers, who are stationed on Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston completing various Army medicine training courses, the opportunity to spend the holiday season with their families and loved ones. For many trainees this leave is their first opportunity to return home after joining the military. They will now return to their communities as representations of the Army profession.
Spc. Luis Zuloeta, a recent graduate of the 68W combat medic course, is flying home to surprise his family in New Jersey. “I am really excited. I cannot wait to see their faces when I walk through the door,” Zuloeta said. “I know they will cry, I will cry; everyone is going to be crying.”
In light of all of the extra precautions required to travel during COVID-19, like testing before he traveled and a mandatory 14 day restriction of movement (ROM) upon his return, Zuloeta says he almost elected to stay on Base for the Holidays. Scheduled to report an overseas assignment in Germany, after block leave he will only be allowed to depart to his follow-on unit after initial COVID screening, completion of the ROM period and another negative COVID test. In the end, he decided the hassle was worth getting to see his family for the first time since he joined the Army six months ago.
“It has been a weird feeling being away from the family,” he said. “But I learned a lot of things here [at MEDCoE] and I am just glad I had this experience.”
68W combat medics, the second largest military occupational specialty in the Army, administer emergency medical care at the point of injury in both combat and humanitarian situations. New recruits attend 10 weeks of Basic Combat Training, designed to turn civilians into Soldiers, at various locations. Trainees then attend 16 weeks of Advanced Individual Training at the MEDCoE.
This year, due to COVID-19, holiday travel is not business as usual. Trainees have been in a so-called “protective bubble” of training since their arrival to Fort Sam via controlled, contracted travel. Due to increased health protection conditions on Base, trainees have not had outside contact with the general public until now so planners wanted to establish measures that would keep Soldiers protected during travel.
To allow trainees to arrive at the airport closer to their actual flight departure, with less wait and exposure time in the airport, MEDCoE leaders and planners extended this year’s departure window to December 15-23 instead of concentrated in a 48-72 hour period like in past years. Soldiers and families were also given products and information about how to travel and celebrate safely while adhering to COVID mitigation measures.
Drill Sergeant Jeffrey Markham is one of the many MEDCoE drill sergeants, cadre and leaders who is patrolling the airport to ensure things are executed as planned. “The measures that we have implemented to avoid the contraction or spread of COVID has made a significant impact for the sake of the Soldiers, the airport and the general community,” Markham said. He arrived to greet the Soldiers at 3 a.m. on Saturday and said he was proud at how smoothly things were going so far. “Soldiers are doing extremely well at staying safe,” he added. “I think by this point, COVID mitigation is just normal to them.”
By far, Saturday, December 19 was the heaviest trainee travel day with over 1,300 of the nearly 2,500 Soldiers that will come through the San Antonio International Airport by Christmas. Several hundred more trainees depart for leave by bus, train or personally owned vehicle.
In addition to airport staff and USO volunteers who are always on-hand to assist traveling Soldiers, MEDCoE drill sergeants, cadre, unit chaplains and leaders were out in force to make sure the high volume of Soldiers didn’t adversely affect safety. Among them was Maj. Gen. Dennis LeMaster and Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Clark Charpentier, the MEDCoE command team.
LeMaster explained why allowing HBL was especially important given the challenges of 2020. “This year, the operational tempo of executing the same quality training using COVID mitigation measures, makes this leave vital to the well-being of our Soldiers, cadre and their families,” LeMaster said.
He believes Soldiers are committed to doing the right thing to prevent the disease while enjoying well-deserved time off. “We are confident that, through Soldier discipline, engaged leaders and support of friends and family, that Holiday Block Leave will be safe and successful for all of our trainees,” LeMaster added.
Markham agrees that the operational tempo has been high since COVID began and, just like trainees, he is looking forward to time off to be with his family. “It’s been a long year,” he said. “Anytime we can step back and reflect and spend some quality time with family is great; it’s much needed and my family is really excited.”
Since COVID mitigation began in February, MEDCoE has graduated nearly 14,500 students in nearly 700 courses. Instructors have also transitioned most of their training to virtual methods as a contingency in the fight against COVID.
Markham, who has been assigned to MEDCoE in 232d Medical Battalion for just over a year, will travel to Alabama for a quick trip to see his family. He will then come back to San Antonio in time to complete a 14 day restriction of movement so that he is cleared to welcome trainees back after HBL in January.
Charpentier said time off for the instructors and their families is just as important as it is to trainees and their families. He explained that military professionals, due to mission requirements and depending on where they are stationed, may not always get to be with loved ones on important occasions to include the holidays.
“Whenever we do have the opportunity to spend the Holidays with family and friends, it is monumental for our well-being and our resilience,” Charpentier concluded.