JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —
The U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence, or MEDCoE, a part of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, marked a significant milestone Feb. 11 in their fight against COVID-19.
The Army component for medical training and education has now safely transported more than 10,000 Advanced Individual Training, or AIT, trainees into and out of the soldier training pipeline since COVID-19 mitigation measures began in early April 2020.
They reached the milestone during one of five scheduled air and ground movements in support of more than 250 Soldiers at the Joint Base San Antonio-Kelly Field Annex.
“Today represents the 10,000th Soldier that we have shipped from AIT to the first unit of assignment, anywhere in the world,” said Maj. Gen. Dennis LeMaster, MEDCoE commanding general. “We have not shipped a single sick soldier and this is a remarkable achievement by the entire TRADOC team.”
The unit, which is based at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, has conducted more than 260 such moves in the last nine months since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
During the early days of the pandemic, LeMaster admits that the Army wasn’t sure if they were going to continue to allow travel to and from training installations in order to keep the training pipeline open.
“The outlook was uncertain,” he said. “We simply didn’t know how we could continue to train and maintain the health of the force.”
The first thing the organization had to do, LeMaster added, was establish a so-called safety bubble around the training environment to ensure disease wasn’t coming in.
They did this initially through screening for the signs and symptoms of illness. Now, trainees are tested for COVID and complete two weeks of quarantine before they are allowed into the safety bubble. Asymptomatic soldiers receive the antigen test and symptomatic soldiers receive a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test.
“The next challenge was to ship our soldiers, worldwide, and safely as well,” LeMaster said.
Army Capt. Cotrena Brown-Johnson is the medical logistics officer responsible for coordinating MEDCoE movements.
Brown-Johnson said moving Soldiers in this manner takes a lot of planning and resources, but it is the safest way for trainees to travel during COVID-19.
The moves are accomplished using the most controlled and isolated methods possible. Even aircrews and bus drivers are screened for COVID-19 and the aircraft and buses are sanitized before and after travel.
“At the beginning, we used San Antonio International Airport, but now we are more consolidated here at JBSA-Kelly Field Annex,” Brown-Johnson said in explaining the evolution of the current process. “We thank the San Antonio military community and JBSA for all of the resources and support they have given us. It has allowed us to streamline our processes, improving the movement of the Soldiers out in a more expedient, timely manner.”
The Soldiers graduated Basic Combat Training before they arrived at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston to complete advanced medical military occupational specialty courses of varying lengths. They now either travel to their first unit of assignment, the next phase of their specialty training, or other military schools like Ranger or Airborne School.
Soldiers who departed Feb. 11 are headed to various units including 23 on continental U.S. military installations including Fort Hood and Fort Bliss in Texas; Fort Carson, Colorado; Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Benning and Fort Gordon in Georgia; Tripler Army Medical Center, Hawaii; as well as three to military installations outside of the continental United States.
The 10,000th soldier was identified as Spc. Angela Thresher, a 68W Combat Medic originally from Washington State, who attended Basic Combat Training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in July and arrived at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston for AIT at the MEDCoE in October.
“I was just told that I am the 10,000th soldier moved,” Thresher said. “I think it’s a great accomplishment for the Army, especially in this time of the pandemic.”
She thinks she and her peers with medical specialty training will be at the forefront of fighting the pandemic.
“Our training is going to come in handy,” Thresher said. “I think a lot of people here don’t know how much it’s going to affect how they are going to work in this pandemic.”
The 33-year-old Soldier, who joined the Army later in life and had already earned an undergraduate and master’s degree, is now headed to her first unit of assignment at Tripler Army Medical Center, Hawaii.
Bundled up for the cold, rainy weather and associated low temperature from the cold front that had settled into San Antonio Feb. 11, Thresher said, “I am looking forward to going to a state I have never been to. I am also looking forward to the warmth at the moment.”
For his part, LeMaster said he was proud of all 10,000 soldiers and the leaders and planners who have ensured the readiness of the operational and generating force through the controlled moves.
About his expectations for all trainee movements during COVID-19, LeMaster said, “That our soldiers remain healthy and they protect the safety bubble and they arrive at their first unit ready to go.”
The general also said that the unit was postured to implement these and other COVID-19 mitigation measures for “as long as it takes” and that he is confident the unit and its trainees will continue to thrive.
In the last 47 weeks since dealing with the pandemic, MEDCoE has graduated more than 18,000 students in nearly 800 courses. These are doctors, nurses, combat medics, physician assistants, respiratory therapists and other medical personnel who may soon find themselves on the frontlines of the pandemic.