U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll Commander Col. Jeremy Bartel addresses repatriated Marshallese citizens at the Kwaj Lodge in April 2021.
U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll Commander Col. Jeremy Bartel addresses repatriated Marshallese citizens at the Kwaj Lodge in April 2021. (Photo Credit: Jessica Dambruch) VIEW ORIGINAL

In April 2021, U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll Commander Col. Jeremy Bartel stood before a group of newcomers at an island orientation. The employees had traveled thousands of miles to serve the Army mission in every sector of range and base operations. Now, their tour was just beginning as his grew short.

Bartel shared an overview of the Kwajalein mission—an endeavor he and garrison contract partners had supported without fail for two years. Then, he gave them some advice about time management.

“Get out there and do stuff,” Bartel said to the newcomers. “Most of your contracts are for one year. That’s 52 weekends. By the time you knock out illness, you’re at 48. Subtract the holidays, mandatory social events, calls home, bad weather and work, and you’re down to 25 weekends to do things you bragged you’d do when you moved to Kwajalein, whether that’s diving, fishing, snorkeling, golf or getting in shape.”

As Bartel could attest, time flies. His tour on Kwajalein began in 2019 as he and his wife, Regan, joined the garrison. Together with the Host Nation team and civilian support personnel, Bartel dived into his work, engaging with local and national RMI government leaders to explore solutions to the atoll’s unique challenges.

Over many months, Bartel learned about the rich culture of the RMI and met with Kwajalein’s leaders and luminaries, visiting with Iroijlaplap Sen. Michael Kabua, fishing with Kwajalein Atoll local government Ebeye Major Hirata Kabua and working alongside personnel at U.S. Embassy Majuro.

Members of the Nitijela have praised Bartel’s perseverance and work ethic in engaging tough issues. Bartel simply did not slow down, they said. Some of his long-term strategies to benefit Marshallese garrison employees will be realized pending future development, and others were initially raised as challenging town hall questions: upkeep to commuter laundry facilities, transit-related issues on Ebeye and Enniburr, grocery and dining services questions on Roi and playground maintenance on Kwajalein.

In the community, Bartel supported the MWR All Atoll Veteran’s Day Fishing Tournament and RustMan Triathlon. During softball season, he and Regan ran the bases with team Mayday at Brandon Field.

Bartel began to log dives. He looked forward to seeing his son who would soon graduate from university.

Then came 2020.

Bartel, who had distinguished himself at Special Operations Command-Europe, would now define his USAG-KA tour with service during an emerging global health crisis.

After the RMI closed its borders to incoming travel to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the way forward proved to be a team effort: a coordinated endeavor between personnel from the RMI national and local governments, U.S. Space and Missile Defense Command, Installation Management Command, U.S. Embassy Majuro and contract partners.

Over several weeks, quarantine plans were tentatively developed and implemented, and Bartel played a key role in advising leadership of relevant safety and logistical needs.

On frequent trips to Majuro, Bartel discussed proposed repatriation program plans with community members. In the months that followed, the team refined operating procedures, tested safety in quarantine drills and prepared island facilities for quarantine. Meanwhile, base operations staffing shortages tested the resiliency of most departments in the Kwajalein workforce—especially emergency and medical services.

In March 2020, Bartel joined U.S. Ambassador to the RMI Roxanne Cabral and personnel from the Kwajalein Atoll local government for a special Ebeye resident town hall. He asked for assent from the community and its traditional leaders before repatriating a small number of mission-critical emergency services personnel. The small step made a big impact and ushered in repatriation.

Continuing mission operations under such reduced conditions would have posed a burdensome challenge without Kwajalein’s Marshallese employees. Bartel voiced his appreciation for the valuable mission role they played at his final RMI town hall June 25.

“There is nothing we can accomplish on this atoll without what you give, every day—without your professionalism and your hard work.”

Following the first tranche, USAG-KA employees, family members and RMI citizens began to arrive, and the garrison and its contract partners provided services to the community while sustaining ongoing quarantine operations.

Milestones were achieved and surpassed. In February 2021, Kwajalein received its first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine. By March the required quarantine time on Kwajalein for incoming residents was reduced to 14 days.

As a result, families have been reunited with loved ones stranded outside the atoll.

“I think it’s great news that we are able to reduce the quarantine,” Bartel said at the March 27 Kwajalein town hall. “I see more reductions in the future, especially on the vaccinated route. Let’s just hold strong and do the right thing.”

After months of no travel, Bartel’s encouragement reinspired USAG-KA residents grown restless in their Covid-free isolation, reminding them to stay the course and focus on their priority: mission support.

Today, Kwajalein’s travel restrictions remain in place, as do current quarantine requirements. The atoll remains one in a handful of communities worldwide with zero spread. Strict adherence to the atoll’s Covid-19 quarantine procedures has resulted in zero transmission in the RMI.

His perseverance and hard work have earned Bartel appreciation throughout the atoll. On Majuro this spring, he was honored in a rare motion by the Nitijela.

One year after the first tranche of EMS personnel arrived on the atoll, island life is returning to a new normal. ATI and United Airlines flight schedules are being restored. The numbers of repatriated Marshallese citizens, Kwajalein employees and new residents is growing. USAG-KA has steadfastly continued mission support operations for the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.

Two years on Kwajalein goes by fast.

“Don’t waste your time,” Bartel said. “There is so much to do on this island. Time will slip by. I’m speaking from experience. I pass that experience along to you.”