JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –Army Medicine soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence, or MEDCoE, graduated from Advanced Individual Training, or AIT, as fully qualified 68W Combat Medics, August 3, 2021, at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
The 68W Combat Medics, the second largest Military Occupational Specialty, or MOS, in the U.S. Army, have been at Fort Sam for 16 weeks of medic training, immediately following their Basic Combat Training. To graduate, the soldier medics underwent difficult training assessing their proficiency in both emergency medical treatment and combat trauma care, culminating in an eight day field exercise to test those skills under simulated combat conditions.
With over 200 soldiers graduating in formation on Fort Sam’s main post parade field, nearly 250 friends and family able to attend in person, and another 300 watching virtually, today’s graduation was a milestone: the first large-scale, outdoor open graduation hosted by the command since the 2019 coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic began.
Up until a few weeks ago, it was uncertain if these medics would get the honor of marking their achievement with a formal ceremony in front of their loved ones. During the early days of the pandemic, on March 13, 2020, Maj. Gen. Dennis LeMaster, MEDCoE Commanding General, suspended all public graduations to help limit community spread of the virus and protect the training pipeline of the Army’s medical soldiers.
LeMaster says he is proud, not only of MEDCoE leaders and planners who helped set the conditions to enable in-person graduations, but he is also proud of the hundreds of soldiers and their families who have supported, and adhered to, the necessary protective measures that are in place.
“Once we got the conditions right it was a pretty easy decision,” LeMaster explained of his decision to allow the graduations for now. “We had to make sure all of the right protocols were in place and that soldiers and their families were committed to following those protocols.” He said conditions can change rapidly due to COVID variants so leaders will continue to assess whether open graduations are feasible on a daily basis. He explained that such diligence is required to ensure soldier readiness and providing MEDCoE soldiers high quality training, despite the added challenges of COVID-19, in order to transition as expeditiously as possible to operational units where they are needed most.
The MEDCoE is the Army’s largest civilian-accredited service school and trains more than 35,000 students annually through 192 health-related programs of instruction at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston. The school’s trainees represent 94 officer medical areas of concentration and 24 enlisted medical specialties: everyone from doctors, nurses and respiratory specialists to patient administration, dental assistants and veterinary specialists, though combat medics are the largest medical specialty trained at Fort Sam.
In July 2021, LeMaster authorized a tentative return to public graduations with COVID mitigation measures in place to include proof of vaccination status and masks for all guests. Those unable to verify vaccination status could also provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of the graduation. Since then, there have been a few smaller graduations, mostly conducted indoors without many family members present.
LeMaster explained the significance of being able to hold the large, outdoor event safely using COVID-19 mitigation measures. “I do consider this a milestone,” LeMaster said. “It’s a chance for families to come together and see their graduates in all of the pomp and circumstance that a graduation has. This is a pretty big deal, for not only the soldiers as a milestone in their life, but also for the families as well.”
The graduation included honors to the nation played by “Fort Sam’s Own,” the 323d Army Band, special guest speaker Sgt. Maj. Christopher Felchle, Chief Medical Noncommissioned Officer, Capability Development Integration Directorate, U.S. Army Futures Command, presentation of awards such as Drill Sergeant of the Cycle, the Dean’s list and honor graduate, followed by graduating soldiers reciting the Soldier’s Creed. The nearly 35-minute ceremony ended with the playing of the Army Song.
In addition to families, friends and LeMaster, other distinguished guests included Cmd. Sgt. Major Clark J. Charpentier, MEDCoE Command Sergeant Major, and Col. Wesley Anderson, 32d Medical Brigade Commander.
Immediately following graduation, many of the guests, who were required to wear masks and demonstrate proof of vaccination, got to visit with their soldiers on post. LeMaster paused off-post passes on July 30 when JBSA increased the health protection condition (HPCON) from HPCON Bravo to HPCON Bravo Plus due, in part, to increased infections believed to be the highly infectious Delta variant in the local area.
In the coming days after graduation, active duty soldiers will go to their first unit of assignment or follow-on training, such as Airborne, Ranger School, or phase two medical training. U.S. Army Reserve and U.S. Army National Guard soldiers will return to their home station units.
LeMaster took the time to speak to the soldiers in formation, informally, before the ceremony began. “You worked very hard to come to this moment,” LeMaster told the trainees. “You’re going to do great. Your Army experience, your Army adventure is beginning.”