JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
U.S. Army Soldiers continue to train at the U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence, or MEDCoE, at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, despite the added challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
How they arrive and later depart, however, has changed.
One late afternoon on a Friday in April, MEDCoE planners received an order to begin controlled movements of all inbound Advanced Individual Training Soldiers from U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC.
The mission, a proof of principle concept, was to conduct controlled air and ground movements to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 while the pipeline of trainees remained open; the pilot program would begin the following Tuesday.
“We quickly implemented processes and procedures to support this effort as part of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Capt. Cotrena Brown-Johnson, the medical logistics officer responsible for coordinating the movements in the MEDCoE G-3 Emergency Operations Cell, or EOC.
She recalls that masks were not even mandatory upon receipt of the initial controlled movement mission.
“We didn’t know a lot about the disease yet, but we knew that having Soldiers travel with the general population was not possible if we wanted to keep the training population safe.”
Brown-Johnson, who is also the MEDCoE Chief of Plans and Training, or G-3/7, estimates that since the first official controlled movement on April 7, 2020, the command has executed at least five dozen inbound movements and 11 dozen outbound movements, that include both air and ground transportation.
“These movements, using the most controlled and isolated methods possible, have been crucial to maintaining the readiness of the operational and generating force follow-on units our Soldiers are going to,” Brown-Johnson said.
For nearly seven months, Soldiers continued to arrive from Basic Combat Training, or BCT, and later depart after completing Advanced Individual Training, or AIT, mainly on chartered flights at JBSA-Kelly Field Annex, Port San Antonio, or contracted buses directly from JBSA-Fort Sam Houston.
Traveling Soldiers are carefully screened for signs of fever and other COVID-19 symptoms before departing BCT, when arriving in San Antonio, all throughout their training at the MEDCoE, and then again when departing to their first unit of assignment. Masks are worn, hands are washed, surfaces are sanitized, and social distance is observed following Army and Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Nothing is left to chance in these tightly controlled movements; even bus drivers and aircrews are screened. The rigorous precautions have paid dividends.
“We have been extremely successful in keeping the training pipeline open because of these controlled movements, with outstanding safety results while conducting movements both CONUS and OCONUS,” Brown-Johnson said.
In the last 32 weeks since dealing with the pandemic, MEDCoE has graduated nearly 13 thousand students in more than 600 courses while safely moving over seven thousand AIT Soldiers of varying medical military occupational specialties in and out of the training pipeline in a combination of over three hundred eighty air and ground movements. All this occured without a single instance of sending a COVID-19 positive student to a follow-on unit of assignment.
“The Brigade Movement Cell was created in response to the pandemic, and a lot of things are brand new,” said 2nd Lt. Francisco Bautista, Movement Officer in Charge for the 32nd Medical Brigade, MEDCoE’s training brigade. He has also been coordinating and executing Soldier movements since last April and has seen how the process evolved.
“Our shop, in conjunction with the EOC, created many new processes that are being used TRADOC and Army-wide.”
As a result of the new processes, standards and mitigation measures implemented, MEDCoE controlled movements continue to be successful with exemplary safety results
“We continue to follow the guidelines prescribed by MEDCoE, TRADOC and the Army when bringing these Soldiers in and sending them out,” said Sgt. 1st Class Garrett Rogers, Movement Noncommissioned Officer in Charge for the 32nd Medical Brigade.
“We’re being strict about it, not leaving any room for error,” Rogers said. “The process is ever changing and improving, looking back to where we started.”
He said the organization is continuing to improve communication and coordination with the BCTs, which have improved and refined the process.
“In the beginning, we were averaging forty days of time on ground after AIT graduation; now we’re averaging three to four,” Rogers said. “We think we can bring that down even further to twenty-four to forty-eight hours.”
With downtime cut and other improvements to the movement mission, MEDCoE continues to train AIT Soldiers in nearly the same amount of time as before the pandemic.
MEDCoE is prepared to continue controlled movements as long as they are needed to keep the AIT training pipeline and MEDCoE cadre and staff safe from COVID.
“We’re almost approaching a new normal, keeping Soldiers on track,” Bautista said. “We are prepared to do it as long as is needed.”