FORT IRWIN, Calif. — After days of planning, rehearsing, and executing missions in the sandy backdrop of the Mojave Desert, masked-up leaders from 7th Infantry Division’s 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team paused training on January 17, 2022, for an after-action review to discuss operational lessons learned during Decisive Action Rotation 22-03 at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif.
In the sandbox, or "The Box '' as it is more popularly known, the preplanned pause is an essential part of the National Training Center’s prescribed rubric enabling the training units to self-reflect and course correct in preparation for final force-on-force operations.
During this tactical pause for 1-2 SBCT, “Ghost Brigade”, the central question posed by the meeting’s moderator, Col. Chad Chalfont, Commander of the National Training Center’s Operations Group, to kick off the discussion was the same question designed before the rotation to guide the Brigade Task Force from the start of the exercise.
“How do we shape (deep) and combine arms (close) to enable the Ghost Brigade to win,” stated Chalfont. Winning, in this scenario, meant compelling – through decisive action operations – the fictional adversarial nation of Donovia to withdraw their troops from Atropia, the fictional neighbor they had invaded with intent to seize territory.
But to even get to the point where Ghost Brigade could fight and win against a fictional enemy, they first had to win the battle against a real-world adversary in the form of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus.
Maj. General Stephen G. Smith, 7ID commander, was on the ground at NTC to observe 1-2 SBCT in action in the box. Smith recognized the significant impact Omicron had on his units during the entire deployment process and movement into the training area.
“I think Ghost [demonstrated] their] ability to adapt to not only operating in the COVID environment…[to complications] internally through leaders being taken out of the fight for up to five days, but also as it affected us externally due to transportation delays and rerouting of trains,” he said. “So their ability to fight through those challenges is very indicative of not just the brigade but the Division, the Corps, and our whole army to fight through any challenge to get the mission done.”
This particular challenge was readily apparent at the ground level of operations. When asked how her unit overcame Omicron, Capt. Dawn Ward, forward support company commander of E Co., 23rd Brigade Engineer Battalion, said it was less a matter of overcoming the challenge and more a matter of learning to live with it as a condition on the battlefield. “It’s not something we get away from, it’s something we work with,” said the native of Oakland, Calif.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported the United States experienced the “highest daily 7-day moving average” of COVID cases to date during the Omicron period. According to the Division Support Element Personnel section, at its peak Ghost Brigade reported almost 400 positive COVID cases in a 24-hour period, which included new cases and those soldiers in recovery. Lt. Col. Tanvi Patel, 7ID Division Surgeon, said she and her staff were initially surprised – much like the general population – at the rate of infection. She explained the most notable challenge for Ghost Brigade was their movement timeline to NTC in the middle of the Omicron variant surge.
“Based on the rapidly increasing positivity rates, we had to quickly screen all symptomatic soldiers and develop an effective plan to transport while minimizing further transmission,” said Patel who hails from Taylor, Mich. “We continuously emphasized appropriate mask use and hand hygiene especially when social distancing was difficult,” she said, stressing that continuous screening of soldiers in the field was a key factor in appropriately isolating and following up on positive cases.
Brigade and Division medical staff, with the help of NTC, designed protocols with controls, measures, and procedures to minimize the risk of spread within the formation as well as provide space and plans to care for the infected population. Tracking and moving the shear volume of recovered personnel back into the fight was a major aspect of the planning process, and an aspect no one had anticipated before the effects of Omicron was widely understood. It turns out plans and procedures based on lessons learned from the Delta variant and COVID as a whole to that point were not sufficient enough risk mitigation measures for the new variant.
Cataldo, Idaho native, Maj. Frederick Alf, who serves as Battalion Executive Officer for 296th Brigade Support Battalion, said at one point his unit had roughly 12 percent of soldiers on the ground isolated or quarantined due to Omicron, degrading the BSB’s ability to accomplish all aspects of the mission.
“We’re taking every opportunity to improve our awareness and training,” Alf said about adapting their methods and procedures to ensure the combat formations receive the critical logistics support they need. “That may mean be putting soldiers in the back of a troop carrier to do flips to go pick up more vehicles from one location to bring forward so we can actually support the Brigade Combat Team on the move,” he added.
Tanvi spoke to what worked as the medical staff developed a revised COVID risk mitigation plan citing the number one factor being the movement piece to NTC. Procuring enough antigen tests to meet demand – both before movement and after arrival to NTC – establishing a system to test and track, and a feasible plan to contain positive cases in a close-quarters environment was essential to keep manpower in the fight. Continuing to remind Soldiers of their responsibilities to mitigate risk, as well as taking an active role in their care for positive cases, was also part of the plan.
“The challenge has always been self-reporting of symptoms and [medical staff] assessing if they’re improving versus not,” said Tanvi, citing the imbalanced ratio of medical providers compared to the hundreds in COVID isolation.
Sgt. Justin Wilson, an infantry team leader from Ooltewah, Tenn., talked about how COVID impacted his platoon just before they entered the box, and subsequently when his unit planned a major assault on an Atropian occupied village.
“One person in my squad – the other fire team leader – and my weapons squad leader, they both actually ended up getting COVID – and my SAW gunner – all ended up getting COVID,” he said. “They are currently out of the fight, so we kind of had to switch people around, move people around to try and fill gaps … adapt and overcome.”
During his introductory remarks at the Ghost Brigade’s mid-point AAR, Chalfont alluded to operational complications and challenges affecting their ability to fight, and that winning was a BCT-wide team effort. The first NTC rotation of 2022 is the first rotation to experience complications due to the omicron variant of COVID, a complexity that was largely unavoidable. But for the commander of the Bayonet Division, it isn’t his first difficult experience in the warfighting business.
“The standard remains the same, and the task remains the same. The conditions change. Fight through the conditions and make it happen,” said Smith.