U.S. Army Garrison Italy
VICENZA, Italy – Of all the things the Army taught Capt. Zach Marusa, the lesson he remembers first is that Soldiers are trained well to thrive in the midst of uncertainty.
Marusa, who leads U.S. Army Garrison Italy’s restriction of movement program for inbound and outbound personnel, faced his share of the unknown over the past year, as part of a team of leaders overseeing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It may be a tired axiom but ‘adapt and overcome’ applies to COVID-19 as well,” Marusa said.
In Italy, the coronavirus surfaced in January 2020. Within days of the first confirmed coronavirus cases, the Italian government declared a national emergency. Within weeks the virus would affect every aspect of life in Italy, to include garrison operations. By Feb. 23, USAG Italy’s emergency operations center found itself operating in an unpredictable and dynamic environment.
Using guidance from the Italian government, U.S. Department of Defense directives and guidance from USAG Italy’s commander, Col. Dan Vogel, the EOC team set to work, said Frank Lauer, who served as the deputy of operations the and is now the garrison operations director.
“We immediately gathered all enablers in one room. We were fully staffed with people who could action a multitude of (other) people,” Lauer said. “We managed to overcome uncertainties.”
Seeing what happened in Korea and elsewhere helped the Army communities in Vicenza and Livorno prepare for the worse. As the situation in Italy rapidly changed, the garrison responded accordingly, but in ways they never thought of before, Lauer said.
Fears rose for some community members living overseas, far from friends and family in the States. No one knew what would come next. By March 9, Italy declared a nationwide lockdown. Meanwhile, the Army had to maintain operational readiness.
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Emilee Troy, a public health nurse from U.S. Army Health Center-Vicenza, has a disaster relief background from her time as an American Red Cross volunteer. Things to prepare, like the distribution of hand sanitizers and masks to Soldiers and community members, was critical.
“I was in the EOC when we received word of the first coronavirus positive in Vicenza,” Troy said. “Two public health nurses and I immediately activated ‘Team Trace.’”
Now staffed by nurses, medics and healthcare professionals, the tracing team was forged by people’s dedication to the mission and professionalism, Troy said.
“We reach out to a couple of hundred people a day to monitor any symptom, to check-in with those arriving in country and more,” she said.
The EOC began operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Long hours and contact operations led to the creations of “red, white and blue” shifts that allowed the EOC team to be more productive and efficient, Lauer said,
“When we enabled a new system, to take care of our own, we noticed our staff a lot happier, despite the uncertainties the pandemic was causing,” Lauer said.
Teleworking and online collaboration platforms also helped, despite an initial learning curve.
“We learned to develop rapports via telephone, but most importantly via video teleconferencing,” Lauer said. “We just had to bring in the human aspect.”
WATCH Part 2: A Look Back and Way Forward Series
Tracking the virus and communicating with the community were key tasks, as was managing incoming and outgoing people – most who’d face quarantine. A team of professionals that included garrison staff, medical experts and Soldiers from tenant units met the challenge head on.
“There are numerous stakeholder organizations across the garrison that continue to support our operations with their time, treasure and talents,” Marusa said. “Units and family readiness groups have bent over backwards to improve quality of life.”
For Troy, a military spouse, the COVID-19 operation has offered her a chance to help safeguard the community when it was needed
“This experience has taught me many things, especially resiliency and adapting to a changing environment,” Troy said.