FORT BENNING, Ga. – Despite a two-week halt on movement of new recruits to Fort Benning and other Army training centers, those already here will continue to train, Fort Benning’s commanding general said April 7 in an online COVID-19 town hall meeting.
The Army as of April 6 has put in a 14-day temporary halt to sending future Soldiers to training posts, including Fort Benning. The aim is to give training centers time to further strengthen and refine their precautions and other measures to protect against spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Meanwhile training – under precautions that include COVID-19 screening, monitoring, physical distancing and others – is continuing here, Maj. Gen. Gary M. Brito, commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, and Fort Benning, said.
The MCoE trains recruits for service as Soldiers in the Infantry and Armor branches, and also trains, among others, those hoping to become paratroopers and Rangers.
“Please do not mix that up with training here at Fort Benning,” Brito said of the two-week halt on sending recruits to training centers.
“There is not a pause of the training that we’re conducting here at Fort Benning,” said Brito. “For the Soldiers that we have – that are here now – they’ll continue to train and continue to be trained.”
That applied to those currently in Fort Benning’s One-Station Unit Training for Infantry, known as Infantry OSUT, and Armor, known as Armor OSUT, and regardless of what stage of training they may be in, “whether it’s week 2 or week 22,” Brito said.
It also applies to other of MCoE’s schools, he said.
“Same for the Soldiers that may be going through Airborne School, that’ll soon go through Ranger School, the ones that are in officer candidate schools, and the variety of functional schools that we have,” he said.
Officials geared the town hall mainly to focusing on how those in training are being protected from the COVID-19 outbreak.
They adopted that focus after noticing that many questions being posed by family members and others were “very much focused on training,” Brito said.
Appearing with Brito during the live-stream were Col. Dawson A. Plummer, commander, 194th Armored Brigade, which conducts Armor OSUT, and Col. Dave Voorhies, commander, 198th Infantry Brigade, which conducts Infantry OSUT.
The live-stream included a period in which the three leaders answered questions from the online audience.
In the course of fielding questions, the leaders detailed how trainees at Fort Benning are being safeguarded during the pandemic.
One question asked what was being done to “boost” trainees’ immune systems.
In answer, Voorhies noted that part of helping to strengthen the immune system is the intense physical training trainees receive, including foot marches and operating in a field environment. All are normal aspects of recruits’ training.
“The stress on human performance increases the immune system,” he said. “By that I mean we look at the human body as a machine. We work the machine, we feed the machine and we rest the machine.”
Proper nutrition, also a normal part of training, was another contributor, Voorhies said, combined with a step taken because of the pandemic: a ban on eating in the enclosed spaces of dining halls, known as DFACS, or dining facilities. Troops are currently eating outside where it’s easier to keep safe distance from one another.
“We feed them a ‘go-green’ strategy in our dining facilities,” said Voorhies. “Now because of the COVID threat in enclosed spaces and the vectors that might be in dining facilities, we take out. We take out every day,” he said, including meals that are heavy in “vegetables, fruits, and proteins. No junk food. We don’t do any soft drinks or any deserts of that nature.
“It’s all good, healthy food,” he said, “and generally trainees lose anywhere between five and 25 pounds during the training cycle.”
The right amount of sleep, another normal requirement for trainees, also helps their immune system, said Voorhies.
“By regulation, most trainees get seven hours of sleep, every night,” he said. “And that’s true for most of the training events. We take that very seriously.”
Those three elements together: proper physical activity, nutrition and sleep, “build that immune system over time,” Voorhies said.
Attention is even paid to those who may arrive for training deficient in vitamin K or D, he said.
“We give them a performance readiness bar, which they take at night, and it has multiple vitamins, D and K in particular, to help build strong bones and muscles,” he said.
Plummer outlined other actions in place to protect trainees.
Those include screening trainees for COVID-19 on arrival at Fort Benning, daily screening of those involved in training them, and stepped up hygiene and sanitation, Plummer said.
“Our battalions are doing deep cleaning, sanitizing the barracks on a daily basis, while increasing laundry services,” he said.
The training units have issued each Soldier hand sanitizer, and have set up several hand-washing stations at training areas and elsewhere, he said.
And, in keeping with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Soldiers are washing their hands for 20 seconds or more, Plummer said.
If a trainee is quarantined after showing signs of COVID-19 but is found after testing to not have the virus, his or her training resumes, he said.
“And the cadre will do everything that they can to get that Soldier back up to speed so that they may graduate with their class on time,” said Plummer.
If a Soldier were to test positive for COVID-19, Fort Benning was ready with support, he said.
“You need to know that Fort Benning will utilize every single medical resource necessary to help our Soldiers recover from the virus,” said Plummer.
Upon recovery, the Soldier will return to training, he said.
“And we will get them right at the spot where they left off at, so they can continue their mission,” Plummer said.
In closing comments, Brito said the Fort Benning community faced “a long haul” ahead.
“The threat is not going down,” said Brito, “it’s continuing to grow here in Georgia and our surrounding states as well. So as long as those conditions exist, we’ll continue, what I’ll call, military term, our defensive posture.”
That meant continuing to maintain travel and other heightened restrictions Brito put in place with issuance of a March 27 order, and to continue supporting a Georgia-wide shelter-in-place order issued by the state’s governor, he said. Unit or large group activities are banned under Brito’s order, and travel is restricted to “essential” errands such as medical appointments, grocery shopping and banking. Earlier in March, Fort Benning suspended normal military graduation ceremonies and certain other activities that had long been routinely scheduled and eagerly attended events at Fort Benning.
“We will do what’s right based off the threat that this installation is facing, to prevent the spread of this virus,” Brito told the live-stream audience.
“This is not about ‘me,’ it’s about ‘we,'” he said. “And we’ll get through this. But I do think we have a long haul ahead of us. Can’t give a timeline to it. It’s definitely not a race, it’s a marathon for sure, and we’ll make the proper timely and prudent decisions to maintain the readiness in the Army for our Soldiers and all of our families, and assist our higher command as well.”
Brito, who himself has a son in the Army, had a special word for parents of those in training at Fort Benning “who give us your trust to take care of your sons and daughters.”
“I am personally committed to make sure we take care of them while we build the readiness for the Army,” said Brito, “and ensure when the day does come and the conditions are set, that they can move on to their next station. They can do that. And look forward to the day when we can open up the gates again for family days and graduations as well.”
The live-stream was the fourth COVID-19 online town hall Fort Benning has held since the first, on March 17.
A video of the April 7 town hall can be viewed online.
In addition, Fort Benning is maintaining an online COVID 19 Forum page.
Key updates and other information about Fort Benning’s COVID-19 measures are also available on MCoE’s official Army website.
Story by Frank Fisher, MCoE and Fort Benning Public Affairs