JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
It’s been one year. The world has been in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic and Joint Base San Antonio is no exception.
A team of dedicated professionals has been on duty protecting military service members and their families and, ultimately, the entire United States.
“The Emergency Operations Center was activated on Feb. 2, 2020, to support the operation that was coming our way from the Department of Health and Human Services for the evacuation and repatriation of the Americans in Wuhan, China,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Tortella, EOC director and commander of the 902nd Civil Engineer Squadron on JBSA-Lackland. “They were coming here to quarantine upon return to the United States. We provided them with the space on the installation to be able to do that.”
They thought this would be a two-week mission, but then the incident with the cruise ship outbreak happened; and then there was another cruise ship. Soon there were reports of infections on American soil, even in San Antonio. It quickly became an around-the-clock mission requiring all hands on deck. From winter to early summer, the EOC was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The EOC played a major role in establishing the posture for the entire installation and how we would respond to COVID-19 as the pandemic evolved. We shifted our focus to protecting and responding here in San Antonio, in Texas, and across the United States,” Tortella said. “In any type of crisis, natural disaster, or other emergency type situation, the EOC is available to effectively provide support. It’s a picnic basket of many agencies across the installation.”
One such agency is the 502nd Force Support Squadron.
“We provided emergency assistance, child care, lodging, mail processing, feeding, Morale, Welfare & Recreation services, and coordinated bed-down, housing and human services capabilities,” said Gerald Gooding, 502nd FSS operations officer at JBSA-Lackland. “We put in place a comprehensive plan to support 10 major commands, 266 mission partners, and 666,749 personnel through the implementation of facility and lodging sanitization, distribution of critical personal protective equipment, delivery of thousands of meals and coordination on installation-wide public health guidance.”
The EOC – in conjunction with the Crisis Action Team – acted as overhead leadership, providing supervision and information on everything from identifying locations for quarantine to finding ways to support trainees, active duty service members, beneficiaries and retirees.
“The team was all-in making sure the installation was prepared, and they took a lot of pride in it,” Tortella explained. “They effectively were given the responsibility to build the continuing operations and the plan that was used as a benchmark for Air Education and Training Command and the Air Force, and arguably the Department of Defense. Because we were given the opportunity to partner with the Department of Health and Human Services, we learned a lot from how they ran their operation, which we were then able to share with our partners across the globe as they were fighting the same fight.”
After DHHS provided the blueprint for the operation, FSS and other agencies were the boots on the ground putting into practice EOC priorities installation-wide.
Those priorities included opening two additional child development centers to fortify child care support for 13 wings and 266 mission partners, maintaining Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols to safeguard more than 30,000 military families, advancing educational outreach, and collaborating with several other organizations on a food drive that brought $60,000 worth of produce to enlisted families were just a handful of the many tasks FSS took on this last year.
“We powered through the COVID-19 pandemic, performing more than 400 extended hours,” Gooding said. “There was no mission degradation, despite the challenges.”
And the challenges were many.
“We had no idea where the finish line was or how long it was going to be, so there was a lot of learning from experience and failure,” Tortella said. “We were building the plane as we flew it. We weren’t familiar with this operation. There were days where some of us were working 20-hour days and not in a place where we could get home and see our families because everything was so new and it was moving so fast. A lot of us just never truly recognized the threat of a foreign disease.”
Tortella and Gooding have learned many lessons, which they hope will help Americans in the future.
“I think what we’ll take away from this is that we can do things differently. Teleworking is one of the prime examples that folks will go to when thinking about what we had to do differently in order to not compromise the U.S. Air Force, and that is not downplaying it or overplaying it,” Tortella said. “If we didn’t adjust business, our Air Force would not be what it is today, and everybody across the country had to do this. You had to figure out how to do it differently, or you just wouldn’t survive.”
He predicts this will spark innovation and thinking outside the box. Gooding agrees.
“Community services and resiliency have never been more important and we have a myriad of folks counting on us,” Gooding said. “In this environment, we have to have open communication, a Plan B, be innovative and understand that ingenuity wins.”
But for every pioneering decision these teams have had to make, sometimes it’s a return to basics that can make such a big difference.
“You can never wash your hands enough,” Tortella said with a laugh. “And you gotta appreciate people’s personal space.”