MONS, Belgium – Col. Kathy Spangler, left, commander of the SHAPE Healthcare Facility and Brussels Army Health Clinic, receives a COVID-19 vaccination Jan. 8 at the SHAPE clinic at Mons, Belgium. The SHAPE Healthcare Facility and Brussels Army Health Clinic conducted their first inoculations of healthcare workers with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine Jan. 7. (U.S. Army photo by Christophe Morel, U.S. Army Garrison Benelux Public Affairs Office)
MONS, Belgium – Col. Kathy Spangler, left, commander of the SHAPE Healthcare Facility and Brussels Army Health Clinic, receives a COVID-19 vaccination Jan. 8 at the SHAPE clinic at Mons, Belgium. The SHAPE Healthcare Facility and Brussels Army Health Clinic conducted their first inoculations of healthcare workers with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine Jan. 7. (U.S. Army photo by Christophe Morel, U.S. Army Garrison Benelux Public Affairs Office) (Photo Credit: Christophe Morel) VIEW ORIGINAL

BRUNSSUM, Netherlands – This March marked a year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

At the U.S. Army Garrison Benelux, we continue to navigate the changes wrought across four countries, our own and three host nations, sometimes with little forewarning.

With lockdowns, teleworking, curfews, closures, stop movements and learning that switches back and forth onto and off of remote status, we all feel the stress that seems unending.

As public affairs professionals we observe, document, and help tell the stories of our garrison; typically we are not part of the narrative. The pandemic, however, has left no one untouched in some way, including this writer, with loved ones who’ve fallen ill, sometimes severely, lost jobs, endured isolation, moved to remote learning and pondered when life will return to normal.

And still, our Families, our friends, our communities continue to rise each and every day.

It is through the lens of adapting and shifting from what was once considered the norm to something new, we were curious to explore the ways some in our communities are coping, surviving and what positives we can hope to glean through these exceptional times.

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Our workforce, its heart, its resilience

“This too shall pass,” said Thomas Joyce, deputy garrison manager, “… eventually.

“But for different people, it’s been very, very difficult, with challenges, physical health, mental health, spiritual, the lack of socialization, when we’re naturally social beings,” Joyce continued. “Early on, we were just trying to figure out how do we telework, how do we close things up. How do you lock things up, how do you lock it down? Then, there’s a little light at the tunnel although we suspected a second wave.”

Joyce explained how the garrison and mission partners worked quickly to set up several task forces in the early days of the pandemic. Championing the teams’ efforts, Joyce talked about initiatives created to address the spread of the virus, provide resources to keep the community engaged via online forums, work through the new requirements and demands for international shipments and the arduous process to disentangle the many difficulties facing service members, civilians and their Family members during in- and out- processing.

“Couple of things I’ve seen now that we’ve been into this a little over 12 months is the resilience of the work force,” he said. “Things opened up some in June and in July, you could once again cross borders which continued into September and October, before November brought the second wave and things tightened up again. And yet the workforce remain resilient.”

“We’ve seen so many positives in process. They keep thinking through things and if something doesn’t work it’s not bringing them down, they just keep working through that, they’re so motivated and optimistic.”

This resilience and optimism is a theme echoed by Robert Carter, interim director, chief supply and services division, Logistics Readiness Center (LRC) BENELUX, 405th Army Field Support Brigade.

“We have 91 people in this LRC and it’s amazing to me that with COVID, we’ve not been shut down,” he said. “Some duties have evolved but the team has answered the call. They execute and never once say that’s not my job, it’s phenomenal and humbling for me.”

Carter outlined in detail the extensive work and volume demands that quickly faced teams across the garrison as a result of the pandemic, including Task Force Logistics.

“We’re tenant units, but the garrison treats us like we’re Family, because of that relationship when there were or are issues, we’re able to explain what’s going on,” said Carter. “In the beginning the supply pipelines couldn’t support us, our force structure. Leadership was a big driving force in getting everyone around the table and getting ourselves into a posture for the long haul.

“What I’ve learned in my time here and this last year of the pandemic, my property book office, central receiving point, supply and services division they always take it to the next level, it always comes out to be this phenomenal effort!” continued Carter. “I use to say I don’t understand how this LRC has been fortunate enough to have the people it has, fortunate enough to have the quality of people and the workforce it has. I tell them now I understand why you are all are here, at this time, at this place. It is because of this mission and I really believe it in my heart.”

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CHIÈVRES, Belgium – In this Army file photo, a member of Task Force Clean wipes a door down in the garrison headquarters. Task Force Clean is one of four task forces that protect the USAG Benelux community from the spread of COVID-19. (Courtesy photo)
CHIÈVRES, Belgium – In this Army file photo, a member of Task Force Clean wipes a door down in the garrison headquarters. Task Force Clean is one of four task forces that protect the USAG Benelux community from the spread of COVID-19. (Courtesy photo) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Our services, adapting to meet our communities’ needs

“One positive, this has forced us to get creative, which is a really good place to be,” said Eryn Pope, programming and events specialist, Family and Morale Welfare and Recreation (FMWR). “It has spurred a lot of good ideas and things we will continue doing, even without COVID.”

Early on, FMWR programs leveraged the virtual world, introducing online initiatives through Task Force Cabin Fever, programming created to help alleviate the harmful effects of imposed isolation.

“We’ve had so much interaction with the community”, said Pope, “which has helped to shift the organization’s focus.”

Pope further explained a lot of times you can be moving so fast doing what’s always been done, according to schedule, with no time to stop, regroup and look at the intention. Reimagining from an intentional view point allowed room for questions.

“Is this program still serving the purpose intended?” Pope said. “As a result, we’ve been revamping a lot of stuff which we think will be very helpful for the community.”

Reflecting on the broader human perspective, Pope shared part of a conversation she recently had with her father, whom she identifies as a very positive man.

“This is a chance to really take a hard look at your Family, yourself, your society,” she said. “People are saying we need to change things and these things are now at the surface; yes it hurts, yes it’s painful, yes it’s scary, but it’s in the light now. For all of us, COVID has brought things to the light.”

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Pace of change

At the Commissary and similar essential needs facilities, the pandemic did not slow things down. Instead it changed the way they do business, many times at a heightened pace.

Highlighting the trends recognized globally, Darlene Coaxum, store director for the Brunssum Commissary shared how people are cooking more at home, seeking out new inspiration and they’ve seen an increase in requests for different items.

The commissary has answered this call providing ideas and recipes co-located with the products to make the dish or meal.

“Shopping is traditionally a family affair,” said Coaxum. “And yet, the community has very been supportive following the one person per household rule and limits on items purchased for highly sought after products.”

Coaxum went on to explain that while some products have been affected, they continue to work diligently through other sourcing channels, including implementation of new vendor relationships and engagement with local suppliers.

“The challenges we’ve faced have brought our team closer together as we worked the front lines keeping the store safe and well stocked,” said Coaxum. And those efforts have produced tangible results, Coaxum continued “there is no one on our team who has contracted COVID, which is a testament to the protective measures taken to keep everyone safe!”

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Our people, means to cope

Loneliness and isolation from the year can exponentially compound for the single Soldier. Staff Sgt. Christian Ballard, physical security for the garrison’s military police at the Brunssum site, has found ways to combat and overcome the situation.

“The restrictions and stay home orders gave me time to learn” said Ballard.

Assigned to the garrison for almost two years, he experienced Europe pre-COVID. Acknowledging the challenges he remains enthusiastic.

“I’ve saved money, that’s for sure!”

With the stop movements, curfews and lack of travel opportunities, Ballard took his extra time online.

“There’s lots of things you can do, learn another language, play games if you’re a gamer, go to college,” he said.

Ballard had other interests in investing and took to YouTube tutorials.

“Before COVID, I had things like a TSP and a Roth but now, now I’ve learned how to invest,” he said. “Sure, I’ve stayed connected with people and friends online, but I’m also using my knowledge gained to invest, grow. And now, I’m using earnings gained from investments, to make more money!”

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BRUNSSUM, Netherlands -- Members of the postal service team at the Brunssum Site of U.S. Army Garrison Benelux move a load of packages Nov. 20, 2020. Although postal operations did not need volunteers specifically at the community mail room in Brunssum, the Netherlands, volunteers lent their services to the garrison's postal operations and were on standby to help at Brunssum. (U.S. Army photo by Naomi van Loon, USAG Benelux Public Affairs)
BRUNSSUM, Netherlands -- Members of the postal service team at the Brunssum Site of U.S. Army Garrison Benelux move a load of packages Nov. 20, 2020. Although postal operations did not need volunteers specifically at the community mail room in Brunssum, the Netherlands, volunteers lent their services to the garrison's postal operations and were on standby to help at Brunssum. (U.S. Army photo by Naomi van Loon, USAG Benelux Public Affairs) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Deliberations on how to do business

“With COVID restrictions and the lockdowns, it forces you to engage a lot more with your Family, everyone is not off on their own, doing different things,” said Margo Gardea, chief of Plans, Analysis and Integration Office (PAIO). “We started to talk a lot more and we’re enjoying the simple pleasures of life through new hobbies like bike rides and exploring more locally – things we would not have done before.”

When shifting focus to the impact on Gardea’s work life, she underlined the lessons.

“We’ve all come to realize how telework is a viable option where before it was a hard no. And we’ve learned to be more deliberate with work, with our communication, you can’t just pop by someone’s office so it’s been a good exercise in being deliberate.”

Gardea spoke of the challenges with technology, software and connectivity in the beginning while also referring to the benefits of the era we live in.

“Imagine if this would have happened before the streaming and technology footprint the world has now!” she said.

She also noted the favorable position working for the Army has provided her and her Family.

“I think the Army has really helped us, by giving us the tools to better operate in our roles,” said Gardea. “We’re fortunate to be over here, have jobs, access to healthcare and things to do. We feel very fortunate and grateful for what we have.”

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Our children, what they’re learning, what they’re teaching us

“I’m most impressed with the children, what they have to go through is unprecedented, but they are resilient” said Byron Wiley, Family Advocacy Program (FAP) manager.

Wiley referred to how children these days have grown up immersed in technology, and one of the biggest challenges he’s witnessed is rather that of adults and parents learning to negotiate various new mediums.

“We are building the plane as we fly it, and the kids are showing us how!”

When Families moved to remote learning, they had to think differently, Wiley said. If a parent is teleworking, their children were also tele-learning, and that can cause conflict.

Does the Family have the technology?

Does everybody have enough space?

How do Families balance things if you have multiple children?

“We were/are quickly learning to survive these new norms,” Wiley said. “Parents and children are being creative setting up virtual play dates and virtual movie watching sessions when we cannot connect in person.”

But Wiley also noted for those struggling, “getting help can still have a stigma attached to it.”

“We (FAP) are not just here for the bad stuff,” Wiley said. “We are here to arm the community with tools for their tool box and while we have a response component, we are very much a prevention program.”

Wiley shared there is a mailbox for people to sign up for classes offered by FAP and they are looking at putting together support groups for parents and children to share best practices. Help can also be sought through the behavior health teams at the respective military treatment facilities across the garrison.

“FAP is a symbiotic relationship, and you are not alone,” he said. “We want people to come out and let us know what your struggle is, the more types of situations we hear about, the more creative we can become, to help you.”

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Different means of learning, different means of socializing

The resilience children are gaining is evident in student Morgan Kosbab, daughter of Margo Gardea. Last spring, when the first lockdowns were implemented, Morgan was an eighth grade student at AFNORTH International School.

“Most of the technology was straight forward and user friendly,” said Morgan. “We were given tutorials at the very beginning so you’d know what to do and there was tech help available as well.”

Morgan went on to say how she enjoyed the flexibility remote school offered, allowing you to take breaks, set your own pace and even eat during your class time.

“I think it’s been helpful,” said Morgan. “It’s more independent, you have to pace yourself and learn to work on your own. It’s sort of the same way it will be with college.”

This positive experienced helped shape Morgan’s decision to remain remote for her high school freshman year, she welcomed the change and hopes to continue remote next year as well.

“I’ve never been a super social person, so when I’m craving connection I can call someone or invite someone over,” said Morgan. “Obviously that might be different for someone else but I haven’t missed it on my end. I’ve been able to engage when needed and on the scale I prefer.”

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Children adapting to a different world

Carly Brashear, school liaison specialist, 470th Air Base Squadron, NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen serves the tri-border region and helps augment support for Benelux Soldiers and Families in the area. She shared her observations from multiple changes over the last year.

“At an orientation for AFNORTH students transitioning from virtual back to brick and mortar, I watched a sixth grader raise her hand saying her classes weren’t populated into the system yet,” Brashear said. “The way the student understood the technology pieces, approached it with maturity and diagnosed the situation, was really impressive to me.”

Brashear highlighted several conversations with parents of young children.

“They’re telling their parents when they need a break or if they can press on to the next task. They know when their assignments are due, what can wait a few days and what needs immediate attention. Even kids as young as 6 or 7!”

How this generation of children will be better prepared for our digital world has impressed Brashear:

“I wish I would have learned these skills at such an early age.”

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The changed world

Craving interaction to counterbalance the digital world, Thom Eaton, director, Child and Youth Services, FMWR, and school liaison officer appreciates how children and adults are adapting.

“Pre-COVID, kids would come to the center and spend a lot of time in front of the computers, gaming, on social media with their peers,” said Eaton. “Now, after online or remote learning they come here and all they want to do is go outside.

“Kids will walk in, grab a skateboard, pair of roller skates or a bicycle and just go; it’s like a ghost town in the building,” continued Eaton. “They’re doing things to exercise their bodies versus hand-eye coordination – that’s a big thing and is fantastic!”

Eaton went on to share the changes he’s witnessed are countless.

“When I’m watching the world, I see Families together, the parks, heides and nature spaces are being utilized,” he said. “People are getting better at playing musical instruments and cooking together, they are reconnecting with friends and loved ones although be it virtually. The pet shelters are practically empty and we’re shifting our focus to purposeful things.”

Eaton wondered out loud, as time passes and studies are done if this time in society dealing with the pandemic, will spur a renaissance of sorts.

“It is unleashing a lot of people’s creativity and I think what we’re going to see in years to come is this time allowed a lot of people to learn, focus or hone in on skills that they hadn’t worked on previously.”

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A postscript

As a garrison, we recognize the thoughts expressed by those interviewed might not be the same you have experienced or are experiencing now, during these unprecedented times.

If you are struggling, there is help and we want you to reach out.

Whether you engage with your leadership, Family Advocacy Programs, Military Family Life consultants, behavioral health, military treatment facilities, chaplains and faith based services or a battle buddy, you are not alone. Please, do not wait!

Reach out today and make a connection, you matter and we want to help.