FORT BENNING, Ga. – Fort Benning’s commanding general took to the internet March 17 and announced a range of precautionary measures to protect the community here from the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and called for a unified “we” mindset that promotes what’s best for the overall good of the community.
No COVID-19 cases have surfaced at Fort Benning, said Maj. Gen. Gary M. Brito, commanding general of the Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning, during an online town hall.
But various “tough decisions” have been necessary to help guard against the virus’ spread.
The forum was live-streamed on Facebook and included a section that gave community members a chance to post online questions for Brito and two other key leaders who joined him for the forum. It started shortly after 6:30 p.m. and ran about 90 minutes.
Appearing with Brito were two other key Fort Benning leaders, Col. Matthew Scalia, commander of U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning, and Col. Melissa J. Hoffman, commander of the post’s Martin Army Community Hospital.
During the town hall, which was live-streamed from a TV studio at the MCoE Fort Benning Public Affairs Office, all three leaders were seated at least six feet from one another, in keeping with the current “social distancing” guidelines issued in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The virus, said Brito in opening comments, “is causing us – all of us – to take pause and scrutinize our daily activities.
“Now up front, I want to humbly ask for three things,” he told the online audience. “One, your support, two, your understanding, three, your full cooperation.
“This is a serious situation, both for Fort Benning, the state of Georgia, and the entire United States and the world, quite frankly,” said Brito. “But we will get over this. We will get over this by working together – and this indeed’s gonna be a long journey – but we will get over this by working as a team.
“Our success, I will offer up to you” Brito said, introducing a theme that ran through much of the evening, “is going to be a little less about ‘me’ and more about ‘we.’
“We will have to make some adjustments to our daily lives,” he said. “Every aspect, from going to schools, dining out, recreation, shopping both on- and off-post, things are gonna change. And I can’t put a timeline when it’s gonna go back to some normalcy. But again, we will work through this.
“And what I ask, that we all continue to work with our friends, our neighbors, our Soldiers of all ranks,” he said. “That we are diligent in practicing social distancing, or physical distancing. And simply work with each other. Continue to do those things that our parents taught us work. Hygiene. Covering your nose when you sneeze, and stuff like that. They work.”
Brito also asked the community to “support” the efforts of those who staff the post’s PX and shoppettes, its commissary, and medical training facilities. Shoppers here have rushed to buy hand sanitizer, thermometers, toilet paper and other products, as well as canned goods, frozen foods and other items, the same types of merchandise that have been the target of panic shoppers and hoarders elsewhere.
In an effort to curb the squeeze, officials here have put in a three-item limit on those and similar high-demand items.
“Now team, many have gone to the PX and commissary over the last days,” said Brito. “They are working very hard to keep the shelves stocked, to keep the PX and commissary clean. And they’ll continue to do so. And I can tell you, as soon as a truck pulls up, they fill the shelves.
“So that I’m gonna ask that all of us shop with the ‘we’ in mind, as the deliveries and stockages occur.”
Brito then turned to the need to help protect Fort Benning’s Martin Army Community Hospital and other medical facilities.
“I ask that you help me help them, save their supplies, save their manpower, and be able to treat those that need the treatment most, as this virus continues to spread, and if it continues to spread here on Fort Benning.
“We’re not exempt, again, and it’s critical that we protect this critical asset,” Brito said of the medical facilities and their staffs.
Brito then outlined some of the key decisions he’s made in recent days, decisions he acknowledged will have big effect on many.
“Now, I’m sure by now many of you have been informed about the activities across the United States and the globe, quite frankly, that have been suspended, closed, postponed, and simply disrupted by this ever-spreading corona virus,” he said.
“We here at Fort Benning are no different. And we are part of the community, as we will attack this and take measures to protect ourselves, protect the health of the force, Soldiers of all ranks, families and civilians, everybody associated with Fort Benning.”
“And we’ll do this collectively, as a team, and working with our partners in Columbus and the surrounding cities,” said Brito. Columbus, Georgia’s second-largest city, lies immediately outside Fort Benning.
“Now team, I’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions over the last couple of days and I’ll have to make some more as we go into the next couple of days ahead of us,” Brito said.
Schools on Fort Benning would close starting March 18, he said.
Steps were in progress to have a substantial number of the work force “telework.”
“We’re taking every opportunity we can to promote working from home, call it telework, what have you, as best we can,” Brito said.
“I know not everybody will be able to do that,” he said. “But in an effort to thin the lines, and promote social distancing in all of our employment places, to include some of the medical facilities and others, we are giving an opportunity for people to work at home and…to minimize the risk of spreading this virus.”
All graduation ceremonies are also cancelled until further notice.
MCoE operates numerous schools that train thousands of Soldiers each year. They include those slated for service in the Infantry and Armor branches, as well as candidates for the paratroopers and Rangers, among others.
For many, the graduation ceremonies are occasions of family pride, often attended by graduate’s relatives, some of whom drive or fly long distances to share in what are deemed milestones for the graduates and their families.
“I’ve also made the tough decision – and I know this impacts many families – to cancel all of the graduations and family days, until another point to be determined,” said Brito.
“I do know for those coming to visit, that is tough. I have a child in the Army myself, and I understand the impact of that.”
Suspending graduations reflects Fort Benning’s effort to reduce COVID-19 risk by avoiding large gatherings.
For the same reason Brito has also suspended until further notice in-person religious services,
“I know that is very tough and personal for many families, to include my own,” Brito said.
But to maintain services, chaplains are lives-streaming them on Facebook.
Also closed are gyms, bowling alleys, and bingo.
For now, said Brito, barber shops and food courts remain in operation, but the post’s senior noncommissioned officers will serve on “courtesy patrols” that will check whether such venues are complying with guidelines on physical distances and “great hygiene.”
Brito has limited leaves and passes for uniformed military personnel at Fort Benning to a “100-mile radius,” he said.
“I do know that this impacts plans that many families may have had already, for spring break. Trust me, I understand that. But it is something that we must do and implement to protect our Soldiers and our families.”
However, requests for emergency leave, convalescent leave and similar urgent requests will get a close, case-by-case look.
“My commanders – your commanders – know the rules that we need to follow and they’ll pass those exceptions up to me as applicable.”
Also presented during the live-stream was key information about medical treatment at Fort Benning.
“We’re doing everything humanly possible to slow down the spreading of this virus,” said Hoffman, the hospital commander.
“Remember that social distancing has proven to be the best way to contain this virus…So if you are sick, please stay home and perform self-care,” she said.
“But if you do have health-care concerns, you are sick, you feel your condition is worsening, I would recommend you call our nurse advice line,” she said.
The phone number is 1-800-874-2273. Select option 1.
The number is staffed 24 hours by a qualified nurse “who will triage you and provide further guidance on how to proceed,” Hoffman said.
Anyone wanting to use the hospital will have to first have a “pre-screening,” she said.
Upon arrival, they’ll be directed to a screening tent where they’ll be asked questions.
“‘Do you have any of these symptoms?’” she said they’ll be asked. “‘A cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, a fever? Have you had any contact with a person who has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, or have you traveled to any of those Level 2 or 3 countries that the CDC has pushed out?’” CDC is reference to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“You will also be given an oral temperature check,” said Hoffman. “Then, based on the outcome of this screening, you will either be assessed further, or you will be directed to our emergency department.
As one of its precautions, the only way into the hospital is currently through the emergency room entrance, Hoffman said. The main entrance is now only an exit.
“When you enter, we will direct you to the shortest route possible to your destination,” she said. “If you are here to be seen, if you’re presenting to the hospital to be seen in the ER, please let a staff member know and we will expedite your movement through the screening process.”
Although the hospital is still providing health care, for non-emergencies, officials there are exploring use of the phone “whenever possible,” Hoffman said.
“We can use the telephone potentially, to conduct your visit between you and your health-care provider.
“Again, we’re actively assessing this process with the focus on readiness and protection of our force,” Hoffman said.
Additional information on shopping, on restrictions to eating places, and changes to certain services for residents of Family housing, were detailed by Scalia, the garrison commander.
The garrison is in charge of the day-to-day running of the installation, including such functions as police, fire and other emergency services, upkeep or roads, operation of eateries, theaters, gyms and other recreational and sports activities.
Scalia underscored the need for restraint when shopping at the commissary and PX.
“Re-stocking of items, just like outside the gate, we are struggling to get the right amount of supplies and items that we’re all demanding,” he said.
“So because of that we’ve had to implement a three-item limit on some high-demand purchases. Specifically, as you are all aware, the cleaning and some personal hygiene items.
“We will keep that in place,” he said. “And as situations warrant, we might have to implement restrictions on other such items. Again, to echo General Brito, ask that everybody think as a community, that we work together on this, and not try to over-purchase items. Items are coming in. They’re stocking the shelves as fast as they can. So please, please be patient,” Scalia said.
On the matter of dining services, Scalia said all “dining in” has been curtailed until further notice, and food is available for take-out or delivery only.
“All dine-in has ended,” he said. “This includes our various food courts, and the tables and chairs are being taken away or sectioned off so people cannot use them.”
Turning to housing services, Scalia said officials have suspended action on residents’ requests for maintenance service “unless” they involve life, health, safety, or are of an emergency nature.
“We ask for your patience,” he said. “When conditions warrant” maintenance service will resume on work requests considered “routine and urgent.”
But even then, there will likely be “a large backlog” that will result in a lengthy wait for service.
Noting that unfounded rumors posted online were taking time for officials to “trace down,” Scalia asked that community members seek answers through official channels.
“Now I understand the concerns and when they come up, my ask of you is that you address them in an appropriate manner,” he said.
“Posting a comment on our Facebook website is not preferred. Ask that with your service member, address it through the chain-of-command, or even private message via Facebook to our garrison PAO,” a reference to the MCoE/Fort Benning Public Affairs Office.
“And then we can give you a straight answer from the right people, without putting fear into other people reading an open comment.”
The live-stream ended with closing remarks from Brito, in which he added a “fourth” request to the three he’d outlined at the start.
“This COVID-19 situation and threat is real and it’s spreading. And just like the city of Columbus, the state of Georgia, this entire nation and globe, we’re gonna deal with it.
“But I would like to finish kind of where I started,” said Brito. “On three things that I’m asking for your support on. We’re in this together. We will get through this. Our lives will be disrupted for a little while but we will get through this. And I can’t give you a timeline how long it’s gonna take.
“But as an installation, as a team, as a military community, we’re gonna get through this.
“Again, I would ask for your support, your understanding, and your cooperation,” he said.
“And,” he said, “I’ll add a fourth one: I ask for your patience. As we continue to work through this serious situation, we’re not alone….So thank you so much for your time tonight. We’ll continue to be transparent and keep you informed. ‘One Force, One Fight.’”
Story by Frank Fisher, MCoE and Fort Benning Public Affairs