JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –The San Antonio International Airport was busier than normal as an estimated 1,200 Soldiers departed for their annual Holiday Block Leave, or HBL, Saturday, December 18. For many Soldiers this is their first opportunity since joining the Army. This annual event allows U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence Soldiers, stationed on Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston completing various Army medicine-training courses, the opportunity to spend the Holiday season with their families and friends.
Maj. Gen. Dennis P. LeMaster and Command Sgt. Maj. Clark J. Charpentier, the MEDCoE Command Team, were on hand wishing Soldiers safe travels and checking-up on drill sergeants and planners supporting the movements. To execute the movement of so many Soldiers takes many weeks of planning and coordination between the MEDCoE and airport personnel. Many other commanders, sergeants majors, and other MEDCoE cadre were also on hand to make sure Soldiers departed smoothly.
The majority of HBL dates fall within a departure window of December 17-21 and a return window of January 1-3, with over 2,300 MEDCoE Soldiers traveling in planes, trains, buses and automobiles with varying final destinations. Holiday block leave is a unique program within the U.S. Army.
“Maj. Gen. LeMaster and I are happy to be out here being with all of these great Americans,” Charpentier said. He said, for many trainees in courses like Advanced Individual Training (AIT) or the Basic Officer Leadership Course (BOLC), this leave is their first opportunity to return home after joining the military. They will now return to their communities, in uniform, as representatives of the Army. “They are going home as professional Soldiers and I am extremely proud of them.”
LeMaster said unlike 2020 when there was initial uncertainty if Soldiers would be allowed to travel using commercial air, this year the decision was much easier. “Since our Soldiers did such a great job of adhering to mask mandates and keeping themselves and their Families safe during holiday block leave in 2020,” LeMaster said, “I had zero reservations with permitting leave this year; especially now that the vast majority of our trainees are fully vaccinated.”
To comply with the Secretary of Defense’s August order requiring all Service members to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, active duty units were expected to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 15, 2021 barring any valid exemption requests.
“What’s really impressive is the discipline of the Soldiers to do the right thing,” LeMaster said. “When we finally get done with COVID then we will probably get away from the masks, screening and testing, but we are not there yet.”
Pvt. Sharon Sweet (19) and Pfc. Daniel Montenegro (18), both 68W Combat Medics, patiently waited for a flight to their home state, New Jersey. Both had no problems wearing masks, though they are fully vaccinated, since masks are a requirement for all air travel in the United States. Sweet said she decided to surprise her Family by coming home for leave; they thought she wasn’t going to be allowed to travel due to COVID restrictions.
“I am looking forward to seeing my mom’s face the most when she sees me and realizes that I was able to come home for Christmas after all,” Sweet said.
Montenegro is looking forward to seeing Family, friends, his dogs and eating a wide variety of foods he has been craving like tacos and hamburgers. He also said, he is probably most excited to see his mom. “I am kind of a mama’s boy,” he said. “It has been tough being away from home for the last six months since it was my first time so I am just going to hug my mom and enjoy this break.”
The safe departure of Soldiers is not the only part of HBL where engaged leadership is important. Throughout their time off Soldiers are encouraged to remain connected with their units and reach out for any assistance while away and upon their arrival back to Fort Sam Houston.
“This is one of my highlights of my time here because I truly enjoy shaking Soldier’s hands and seeing them off,” LeMaster, who has been in command since January 2020 and farewelled Soldiers at the airport in December 2020 as well. He said he will consider Holiday Block Leave a success when he knows for sure that all Soldiers and leaders enjoyed their time off with their Families and are able to return to Fort Sam Houston safely. “We will receive them back here in a couple of weeks, hopefully well-rested, healthy and happy and ready to get back to training.”
To learn more about HBL and a list of contact information visit the MEDCoE website at https://medcoe.army.mil/holiday-block-leave.