Training Battalion Adapts to COVID-19 Challenges

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The COVID19 virus has had an enormous impact on the health of Americans, our economy, and our way of life. By 6 DEC 2020, almost 15 million people have been infected in the US, and the numbers continue to grow daily. The Army has the unique challenge of keeping our Soldiers and Families safe, while still accomplishing our mission.

Through the COVID-19 pandemic threat situation, we at 2nd Battalion, 319th Regiment Cadet Summer Training Battalion (CST BN) have had great success meeting our core mission requirements, standard Army Reserve training requirements, and maintaining readiness of the Battalion and the people within. We’d like to share some of the challenges we’ve faced due to the precautions enacted to slow the spread of the virus, some of the steps we’ve taken to adjust to the changing mission requirements, and the outcomes we’ve seen.

Our unit, 2-319th CST BN is a training Battalion under 1st Brigade, 104th Division (Leader Training) that is tasked primarily to support ROTC Cadet Summer Training annually. In addition to our core mission, we must complete all standard Army Reserve training requirements such as mandatory training, Professional Military Education, annual range fire FTX, etc.

The emergence of the threat of a COVID-19 pandemic created many of the same challenges for our unit as it did for the rest of the Army. The first major ripple on Battalion operations that our unit faced was when the March 2020 BA was conducted virtually. But as the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. Or in this case, two.

Internet access at Reserve Centers on Battle Assembly weekends is typically very spotty. Some of the perennial issues are inadequate numbers of computers exacerbated by a portion of them not functioning for a multitude of reasons, poor internet connectivity and speeds at the Reserve Centers, and many Soldiers not having valid ARNET accounts. The Soldiers within the Battalion were able to make rapid progress in computer based training requirements using their civilian internet providers and personal computers/devices to complete online training requirements. In turn, the Soldiers were able to save time and cost on travel to their Reserve Centers.

Among the training performed remotely were mandatory training requirements conducted by video teleconference, NCOES, MOS specific training, mandatory training, and IT/Cyber security training courses necessary to request an ARNET account.

Our Battalion has a Battle Rhythm most in the Army Reserve will recognize, with the exception that we normally conduct two Field Training Exercises (FTX) annually. As much as possible, our FTXs include range fires with standard issue weapons, and because we instruct on other weapon systems they often include familiarization with crew served weapons or other devices (grenades at a recent FTX). Unfortunately, our April FTX was canceled due to COVID precautions at Fort Lee, which led to Virtual Battle Assemblies in the months of April, May and June.

Hero of the battle for the transition to virtual BA went to A Co. Their quick adoption and use of the Microsoft Teams/Commercial Virtual Remote (CVR) working environment was critical to the preparation and execution of essential training. A Co. demonstrated how useful the platform can be, which precipitated quick adoption by the rest of the Battalion.

In early May, as understanding of the virus slowly increased, Cadet Command made the decision to cancel CST20. The choice was undoubtedly influenced by the knowledge that in any normal year common respiratory viruses (colds) run rampant among the Cadets. It follows that the same would be the case with COVID-19. In past years, the CS (tear gas) chamber at the CBRN site has helped the many Cadets afflicted with colds to clear their nasal passages. But the symptoms of COVID-19 are different than the common cold, and exposure to CS gas might well have had disastrous effects on a dry cough.

The cancellation of CST20 left many thousands of Cadets without key institutional training, and many instructors with no Annual Training mission. To bridge these shortcomings, the 104th Division (LT) worked with Cadet Command to execute an alternative training operation. Under Operation Agile Leader (OAL), Soldiers from various training Battalions peppered across the nation were tasked to conduct training at Universities in their local region.

The 2-319th CST BN contributed to OAL by supporting nine Universities at their location for a total of 73 training days, involving 173 instructors from late July through early November. Among the universities our unit supported were four of the six Senior Military Colleges; the Citadel, Virginia Military Institute, Norwich University and Virginia Tech.

Due to the short notice of the OAL missions it was impractical for many Soldiers to arrange leave from their civilian employers. With this in mind, Battalion and Company leadership chose to staff all of the missions with Soldiers who volunteered to go. The end state was that all missions were sufficiently staffed, all Soldiers who wanted an AT were provided the opportunity. No Soldiers were forced to be absent from their civilian jobs on short notice. The instructors provided quality training to Cadets in the areas of instruction normally covered at Cadet Summer Training, while at the same time reducing travel to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

A return to home station Battle Assemblies in August was made possible by preparation and execution of a COVID-19 Risk mitigation plan. Key steps in the risk mitigation plan were taking temperatures of all persons entering the building, the wearing of masks while inside the building, thorough daily sanitization of the facility, and conducting training outdoors as much as possible. Commanders granted RST authorization liberally for a range of reasons from accommodation of family issues, to meeting the staffing needs of civilian employers. Consideration was also given to individual Soldiers’ good faith efforts to reduce the risk of COVID transmission.

The opportunity to come together once again brought camaraderie and good cheer to the troops save for an exceptional and unfortunate circumstance. In late July Spc. Curtis Fort, 92Y, became the first Soldier in the Army Reserve to die from COVID-19. His passing was a tragic loss both for his Family and for his unit. The Battalion, along with Bravo Company (co-located with the Battalion Headquarters), held a memorial service for Spc. Fort on Sunday, August 2nd, under the US flag at the PFC Cloyse Eldridge US Army Reserve Center in Salem, VA. Spc. Fort was a doting husband, loving father, and cheerful and hard-working Soldier in the Battalion S4 section. His cheerful smile and positive attitude are greatly missed.

The Battalion had anticipated some range time in the outdoors for September Battle Assembly, but unfortunately COVID-19 precautions at Fort Lee where the FTX was scheduled resulted in the lack of availability of barracks. With no billeting for the Soldiers on post, it was necessary to cancel the FTX and conduct BA at home station.

The Battalion still managed to get some field time though, of sorts. Leveraging the gorgeous late summer Virginia weather as well as the fact that some NCOs had recently received training on the ACFT, the Companies took to the outdoors and conducted ACFT familiarization training at their respective locations. The three day BA enabled them to conduct thorough AFCT familiarization training as well as to get further caught up on administrative actions.

October and November Battle Assemblies were again at home station, and the Battalion managed to get some time in the field. Not least to mitigate risk of COVID-19 transmission, BN HHC and B Co conducted a 10 mile ruck march during October BA at Greenhill Park in Salem, VA. The park is nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Southwest Virginia. A Co, based at Fort Lee, VA and its one detachment based at Fort A.P. Hill, VA conducted ruck marches during November BA on their respective posts.

Battalion Headquarters and Bravo Company Soldiers were joined on the march at Greenhill Park by Brig Gen. Joseph Edwards, Commander of the 104th Division (LT). The General made it a point to commend the Soldiers on their performance. Per BG Edwards, “This Battalion has done a tremendous job executing its core mission and maintaining unit readiness.”

Uncertainty is a fact of life in the Army. The emergence of COVID 19 simply added to the challenge. Leadership that can quickly assess the situation and react decisively is key in uncertain times. Agile leadership is truly the difference between success and failure. The critical inputs to our operations were clear direction from higher level commands coupled with delegation of authority necessary to execute the commander’s intent. Preparation and implementation of a detailed risk mitigation plan, coordinated execution through the levels of command from the Brigade through the Battalion and Companies, all the way down to the individual training teams tasked to conduct the training were also critical. Perhaps most important were dedicated and motivated Soldiers! The output? Mission success, and Soldiers who love their job.

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