JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —
Recent graduates of the 68W Combat Medic Course at the U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence, or MEDCoE, at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, were transported in controlled air and ground movements April 9 to their next duty of assignment as an exception to the Department of Defense stop movement enacted to stop the potential spread of the 2019 Coronavirus Disease, or COVID-19.
With only 96 hours' notice to the execution of the first mission, MEDCoE coordinated four separate air missions to seven different locations.
Nearly 60 active duty soldiers flew by military air transport to duty assignments at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Polk, Louisiana; Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Stewart, Georgia; Fort Carson, Colorado; and Fort Bliss, Texas. Simultaneously, the organization planned and conducted a controlled ground movement for over a dozen soldiers going to Fort Hood, Texas.
In March, the Department of Defense announced a stop movement order for all uniformed and civilian personnel and sponsored family members that began with overseas COVID-19 hot spot areas and were later extended to all travel within the United States in response to the increasing threat of COVID-19.
The stop movement order, in effect until May 11, has provisions that allow exceptions to policy under certain circumstances, to include those missions that are deemed essential.
“Our mission of getting Army Medicine soldiers trained and prepared for what comes next is absolutely essential to force readiness,” said Maj. Gen. Dennis LeMaster, MEDCoE Commander. “It’s about readiness. This is about the Army being able to take soldiers and move them through Basic Combat Training to Advanced Individual Training and getting them to their first unit of assignment to make sure we have a fully manned force.”
MEDCoE instructs nearly 37,000 soldiers annually in more than 360 medical-related training and education programs. Their motto is, “Army Medicine Starts Here,” as all Army Medicine personnel, regardless of component, will attend training at the MEDCoE at some point in their career. They are the Army proponent responsible for envisioning and designing responsive Army Medicine capabilities and structures that support the fielded force and the future force.
Many of the soldiers who completed the controlled movements this week are going to units to backfill someone who is forward-deployed in support of the national COVID-19 mission; still others may soon find themselves on the front lines in direct combat against the disease.
Lt. Col. Cory Plowden, 232d Medical Battalion Commander, served as officer in charge for the screening, out-processing and controlled ground movement to the airport. The controlled air movements were planned and lead by Capt. Cotrena Brown-Johnson, Medical Logistics Officer in Charge, Emergency Operations Cell, MEDCoE. Three days of flight support, April 7, 8 and 9, was provided by a special operations aviation unit through coordination with the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, MEDCoE’s higher command.
“Usually Soldiers are released after graduation and move to their first units of assignment on their own," Plowden said. “For this controlled movement, we will load them on the buses at a staging area on JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, move them to the airfield to put them on a dedicated aircraft and that aircraft will take them to their first unit of assignment. So it is very different from what we typically do.”
Plowden, who has been in command since July 2018, described this type of highly synchronized mission as very unique but necessary to ensure the safety of, not only the soldiers being transported but also the safety of the aircrew who transported them and the MEDCoE cadre and soldiers who helped execute the operation.
Equally important is the safety of personnel in their new organizations who will expect the combat medics to arrive healthy and able to quickly integrate into their current operations alongside other soldiers.
“We owe it to all involved, especially the gaining unit and their surrounding communities, to get the screening and controlled movement right,” Plowden said. “Fortunately, our outstanding team of professionals at the Medical Center of Excellence is uniquely qualified to execute the screening, sterile transport and controlled movement flawlessly.”
The departing trainees, many of whom arrived late 2019 for the 16-week combat medic course, have been in a so-called “protective bubble” the training environment often affords.
These trainees have been particularly insulated from the outside community since their graduation was restricted to the public and then canceled altogether to promote social distancing.
The group has also been restricted to base without contact from the outside community and verbally screened for symptoms daily by drill instructors due to COVID-19 concerns.
Since these combat medics have been insulated by this level of isolation since even before the disease became a global threat and have not had any demonstrative symptoms, the trainees were assessed as very low risk for COVID-19.
Despite the low probability of carrying the disease, all of the soldiers were again verbally screened through a series of questions about their health and had their temperatures taken prior to out-processing. The MEDCoE command surgeon was also on hand to perform any medical assessments if needed.
"I am a little bit nervous about going to the front lines right out of training," admits Pvt. Kenneth O'Kelley as he heads to a unit that is forward-deployed in support of the nation’s defense against COVID-19. “However, my instructors and my drill sergeants have definitely prepared me for what I need to do when I go out in the force outside of training.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Clark Charpentier, the MEDCoE command sergeant major and senior enlisted advisor, said the best advice he can offer these soldiers is to trust in their training and their abilities to provide critical medical support to their gaining commands as they begin their next chapter as fully qualified combat medics.
“As these soldiers move forward to do America’s missions and what we need to do as part of the Army, I am fully confident in their abilities to safely accomplish their mission, regardless of the situation they are put in,” Charpentier said. “They are prepared to meet the demands required of them as soldier medics; this virus is just another enemy that they are dealing with.”