FORT BENNING, Ga. – Several dozen Soldiers who recently finished initial entry training here but who could not move to their new assignments because of a Pentagon COVID-19 travel ban, became the first to depart Fort Benning April 9 after the Army okayed the move, which was made under elaborate health-and-safety precautions.
The group of 40 newly-minted Soldiers are graduates of Fort Benning’s One-Station Unit Training for the Infantry and Armor branches, known respectively as Infantry OSUT and Armor OSUT. They were accompanied to Fort Stewart by Fort Benning drill sergeants.
The Soldiers departed Fort Benning on buses that took them to their first units of assignment, at Fort Stewart, Georgia. The buses were loaded only to half-capacity to allow for safe social distancing. The trip took about four hours and 15 minutes.
The meticulously planned process of staging for and carrying out the troop movement under special health precautions was a “pilot” effort which, if deemed successful, could clear the way for further departures of Fort Benning’s OSUT graduates, said Col. Bryan E. Fowler, deputy chief of staff for sustainment at the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence here.
MCoE trains Soldiers for service in the Infantry and Armor branches, which together comprise the Army’s maneuver force, and also trains those hoping to become paratroopers and Rangers, among others.
“It’s leaving a clean environment and arriving at a clean environment, the same way,” said Fowler.
As members of OSUT training units, the Soldiers had already been kept “clean” from exposure to COVID-19 through a stringent regimen of steps adopted here in the face of the pandemic, said Maj. Mark Moretti, deputy commanding officer of MCoE’s 199th Infantry Brigade and an officer closely involved in the departure effort.
Those steps have included: ensuring trainees and those training them keep the proper physical distance from one another, adjustments to training that allow for that same safe distancing, eating meals outside the enclosed spaces of dining halls, and other steps to minimize risk of exposure.
In addition, the training units have kept up COVID-19 screening procedures that include checks of body temperature, stepped up hygiene and sanitation, including deep cleaning of barracks daily, and increased laundry services.
Each trainee is issued hand sanitizer, and hand-washing stations have been set up in training areas and elsewhere. Trainees are also being required to wash their hands for 20 seconds or more under guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For the move to Fort Stewart, Fort Benning was no less zealous in taking steps to safeguard health, officials said.
Once buses were lined up for the trip, the drivers had to pass a COVID-19 screening on arrival here. Their temperatures were taken and they were asked whether they had been exposed to, or shown symptoms of, COVID-19.
“And then the bus is cleaned through the cleaning techniques that are approved by the government now,” said Fowler. “So that creates a secure environment as far as not having a mode of transportation that has the possibility of the virus on it, the best that we can.”
In the 24-hours before departure, the safeguards continue.
The Soldiers were moved to a staging area, known in military terms as a Life Support Area, or LSA, that accommodates up to 500 persons, to await departure.
There too, the social distancing and other precautions enforced during OSUT are in place to keep the Soldiers in their already COVID-19 free, “clean” status, said Moretti, who is currently in charge of the LSA as it’s “mayor.”
“When we received them at the LSA,” said Moretti, “our cadre went through that same process of being medically screened daily, decontaminating themselves before they come into the LSA, and then did the actual cleaning of everything that happens within all the tents.”
“We’re keeping it as ‘clean’ as we can and we will only put Soldiers that are known to be ‘clean,’ into that facility,” Fowler said.
Those steps, combined with those that kept the trainees safe while still in training, “are what kind of made the movement possible,” Moretti said.
On the morning of departure the troops were moved from the LSA to a second location to await the buses. While there, they were kept isolated as a further precaution, and before departure, were screened again, he said.
Before boarding the bus their temperatures were again taken and marked on a wristband that would show Fort Stewart officials whether their temperatures had changed since departure.
“And when we put our ‘clean,’ non-COVID-positive Soldiers on there, into the clean environment, then we transport them over the road in a non-stop fashion and that’s why we only go 500 miles,” said Fowler.
“So that they can go from point A to point B, in this case Fort Benning to Fort Stewart, without having to make stops,” he said. “And that reduces the exposure of the Soldiers having to get off the bus to go to the bathroom or get chow,” he said.
“So they stay on the bus the entire way and they arrive in ideally the same manner as they departed, from a clean, secure mode of transportation into a clean, environment at the destination,” Fowler said.
On arrival the Soldiers are again screened for COVID-19, he said.
“It’s leaving a clean environment and arriving at a clean environment, the same way,” Fowler said. “That’s the measures we’re taking to protect the force.
“So we’ve secured them going on, and then on arrival, they’ll be validated – the temperature, and screened again just to make sure nothing’s changed, and then they will go into that installation’s procedures for integration into their units, Fowler said.
Officials here hope that if the move to Fort Stewart proves successful, they’ll be cleared to continue moving OSUT graduates to their next assignments.
Whether such movements would be by vehicle or aircraft will depend on whether the destination is within, or beyond, 500 miles of Fort Benning, said Fowler.
Fort Benning is prepared to continue movement of OSUT graduates by using buses for those slated for assignment at two other duty stations that fall within that 500-mile radius: Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he said.
For OSUT graduates who await transport to duty stations beyond the 500 miles, Fort Benning has asked permission to have them go by plane, he said.
“We have our first air request in, and that’s to move people by air, which would be to locations that are farther away than 500 miles,” Fowler said.
Those duty stations include, for example, Fort Bliss and Fort Hood, both in Texas, Fort Riley, Kansas, Fort Carson, Colorado, and Fort Drum, New York.
“We’ll be executing that once the aircraft get assigned to us,” said Fowler.
Whether by vehicle or air, the safety measures will be the same, he said.
Setting the stage for the departure entailed elaborate planning and fast but careful execution, officials said.
“To get to that,” said Fowler, “a lot of things have had to happen.”
A contractor was brought in to build the LSA quickly, and within the necessary health-related specifications.
“The tent city went up from roughly six days from planning, to a functional, 500-capacity living village,” Fowler said.
The LSA has sleeping arrangements that give each Soldier 120-square feet of living space “so that we could provide as much social distancing as we could in the living tents,” he said.
It’s also equipped with life-support trailers that house “state-of-the-art” latrines and showers, service with washers and dryers, and a morale-and-welfare tent “where they can go and sit and relax or play games,” said Fowler.
There’s a separate dining facility as well as an outside eating area “so we can continue to spread the team out,” he said.
“So we’re still going along with the eating, social distancing concepts in a small footprint,” he said.
“It was designed with social distancing in mind so that we could try to reduce contact as much as possible,” Fowler said of the LSA.
A video of the departure is available online.
Story by Frank Fisher, MCoE and Fort Benning Public Affairs