JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
More than 1,300 Soldiers training at the U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence, or MEDCoE, at are expected to depart from Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston via the San Antonio International Airport for their Holiday Block Leave Dec. 19.
This annual event allows MEDCoE Soldiers, who are completing various Army medicine training courses, the opportunity to spend the holiday season with their families and loved ones.
For many trainees in courses like Advanced Individual Training or the Basic Officer Leadership Course, this leave is their first opportunity to return home after joining the military. They will now return to their communities as representations of the Army profession.
This year, however, due to COVID-19, is not business as usual. Maj. Gen. Dennis LeMaster, MEDCoE commanding general, explained why Holiday Block Leave is especially important given the challenges of 2020.
“This year, the operational tempo of executing the same quality training using COVID mitigation measures, makes this leave vital to the well-being of our soldiers, cadre and their families,” LeMaster said.
The general said Soldiers are committed to doing the right thing to prevent the disease while enjoying well-deserved time off.
“We are confident that, through Soldier discipline, engaged leaders and support of friends and family, that Holiday Block Leave will be safe and successful for all of our trainees.”
LeMaster said that the trainees have been in a so-called “protective bubble” of training since their arrival to JBSA-Fort Sam Houston via controlled, contracted travel.
Due to increased health protection conditions at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, trainees have not had outside contact with the general public until now.
To allow Soldiers to arrive at the airport closer to their actual flight departure with less wait and exposure time in the airport, the majority of MEDCoE Soldiers have a departure window from Dec. 15-23 instead of concentrated in a 72-hour period like in years past.
Dec. 19 marks one of the largest groups to depart in one day, with about half of the nearly 2,500 Soldiers that will go through the airport by next Wednesday. Several hundred more trainees will depart for leave by bus, train or personally owned vehicle.
In addition to the many safety measures soldiers were already used to following when traveling, MEDCoE leaders and planners will take extra precautions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 for the safety of the soldiers, as well their friends and families that they are traveling home to.
Soldiers are instructed to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for safe travel from JBSA-Fort Sam Houston all the way to their final destination. That means wearing masks, social distancing as much as possible and frequent hand washing and use of hand sanitizer during the trip.
Understanding the threat COVID19 presents, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Army developed detailed plans to mitigate the spread of COVID19 before, during and after block leave.
Command Sgt. Maj. Clark Charpentier, MEDCoE Sergeant Major and Senior Enlisted Advisor, said planners have been strategizing and war gamming the travel scenarios for months.
“We will screen each Soldier before they depart for Holiday Block Leave; 100 percent of symptomatic Soldiers will also be tested,” Charpentier said. “In the event a Soldier tests positive for COVID, they will remain on Joint Base San Antonio for their required isolation period.”
In past years, the Medical Center of Excellence has averaged a 3-5% stay-back population during the Holidays. This year they expect that number to be closer to 8-10%. Some due to isolation or quarantine requirements and others who chose not to travel.
Though a positive trainee who cannot travel for Holiday leave is the worst case scenario, Charpentier said the Army is well prepared for that contingency.
“Besides the excellent care that we provide to any Soldier who cannot travel due to COVID,” we have holiday activities planned for any trainees who simply chose to remain on the installation,” Charpentier said. “Either way, we will ensure all of our Soldiers are well taken care of and have a happy and healthy holiday.”
Soldiers returning from HBL will be screened for COVID-19, and tested if symptomatic. Each returning Soldier will complete 14 days of restriction of movement where they will complete all virtual, instead of in-person learning. This year’s return window is Jan. 2-8, 2021.