CAMP AFRIJAN, Kuwait — The commanding general of the 310th Expeditionary Sustainment Command said it was a tremendous challenge to successfully mobilize and deploy his Army Reserve unit here under a strict COVID-19 environment.
“Our team has come together well, and we work well together with the 1st TSC element that’s here and I think that we have risen to the challenge,” said Brig. Gen. Justin Swanson, who also serves as the deputy commanding general of the 1st Theater Sustainment Command.
“When we uncased the colors here at Camp Afrijan and the next morning I came to work, I was surprised at the pace of the operation,” he said.
“The robust and challenging environment that we operate in across multiple countries and multiple named operations—and that was a bit of a surprise to me—and I was surprised that I was surprised, because I knew that this was coming for some time,” he said.
The Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana-based 310th ESC is the senior most Army Reserve logistics unit to go overseas, since the United States and the Department of Defense enacted to current rules and protocols to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If you think about how we’ve been operating, INCONUS and the garrison environment, there’s a lot of teleworking going on, there’s a lot social distancing,” said the general officer, who first enlisted in Louisiana National Guard and served there as a combat medic.
“Well, you can’t telecommute if you are training to deploy,” he said.
“There are things that you have to do from a readiness perspective, medical perspective--actual training and systems that you have to be familiar with and access to—and it is extremely challenging to achieve field exercises.”
Yet, despite it all, the 310th Soldiers completed all the training requirements to deploy, he said.
Lessons learned for Big Army
“The biggest lessons learned for the Army in general, are that when this is over—when we get back—when the COVID-19 requirements ease a bit, we will have learned to be a better force, because we have been in the situation, where we have used the virtual meeting to our advantage,” he said. “We’ve perfected it, and we will be able to utilize it in the future to accomplish some of our training goals without having to put Soldiers on the road over many hundreds of miles coming together to do classes that can be done virtually.”
Before units were forced to embrace the virtual meetings, classes and battle assemblies, there was real anxiety, said Swanson, who was commissioned a second lieutenant through the Louisiana State University ROTC program 1993. He then went on to graduate from the Field Artillery Basic Officer Course and serve as an artillery officer on active-duty before transferring to the Army Reserve.
“There was real intimidation out there before this COVID hit our country and our Army Reserve, but I don’t think there is any more intimidation or any more hesitation about the virtual environment,” he said.
Swanson: Previous Afghanistan deployment foundational for Kuwait
“When I deployed with the 518th Sustainment Brigade to Afghanistan, I learned many lessons that I have taken with me on this deployment,” the general said.
“Soldiers are Soldiers, so although I am now a one-star general, vice being a colonel when I deployed to Afghanistan, I still basically have a large group of Soldiers—roughly the same amount on my staff now as I had in the headquarters, when I deployed to Afghanistan, 200-plus,” he said.
“We ran into the same issues in training, ran into the same issues at Fort Hood, as we prepared to come over,” he said.
“We had some of the same challenges at home station to build the team, but we did not have to do it under the COVID-19 environment,” he said.
“We did not have the same dispersed training environment or dealing with COVID-19 infected Soldiers,” he said. “We were able to be successful, regardless, in this environment, similarly as we did with the 518th.”
When sustainment brigades deploy to Afghanistan in support of Operation Resolute Support, they are renamed as: Resolute Sustainment Support Brigades during their time in theater, so that the brigade filling the same role the 518th SB is now filled by the 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade, renamed the 10th Mountain Division Resolute Sustainment Support Brigade, commanded by Col. Erin Miller.
Swanson said he is also amazed that he is now the higher headquarters for the unit executing the same mission he had in Afghanistan.
“The guy I am now is the guy I used to answer to when I was deployed to Afghanistan a few years back,” he said.
“We still have the sustainment brigade in Afghanistan and I still talk to that commander on a daily basis. I get along with the commander Colonel Miller very well, because I know the environment very well,” he said. “I’ve been sitting in her seat before, and it has worked to my advantage—helping her with that challenging role that she is in.”
COVID-19 protocols are here to stay
Swanson said that after the pandemic ends, many of the rules and procedures related to the pandemic will continue on and beyond. “We will take some of the positive lessons learned from operating in the COVID-19 environment and continue to utilize them.”
The general said many of COVID-19 countermeasures are the new normal.
“We will likely stay in the posture of social distancing and face masks well beyond the three-to-six months after we all get the vaccine or are inoculated,” he said.
“The environment is going to remain the same—I think it is normalized,” he said.
“There may be a dividend we are not even factoring in right now,” he said. “We are having less Soldiers with the flu or other illnesses, because we are all wearing masks and we are all washing our hands more—and that’s a positive for the force.”
On battlefield circulation, Soldiers are telling him that they are growing fatigued of COVID-19 and the restrictions the pandemic forces on their operations, he said.
“They ask: ‘When will this be over?’ and I have told them that it may not be over for a long time,” he said.
“I try to be frank and transparent with them,” said the former combat medic.
“I believe that in the next seven-to-eight months that we are here, we’re going to wearing masks until the day we arrive back in the continental U.S.—and maybe beyond,” he said. “I’ve tried to explain to them the importance of that and how having a COVID outbreak or having a spike in your formation can really render a unit ineffective.”
The general said he and his team accepted the reality of COVID-19 and deployed through it.
“We trained to deploy in the COVID-19 environment, and we did not have the same opportunities we would have had in years past as an organization and as a team to build that teamwork, but we made the best of it,” he said.
Swanson said despite all of the hurdles, the team did not make excuses.
“Once we took the mission on, we took the mission on—we owned it,” he said.