FORT KNOX, Ky. –
The commanding generals of U.S. Army Recruiting Command, the Center for Initial Military Training and Fort Benning joined forces online Aug. 19 to ensure recruiters, Future Soldiers and family members understand the procedures in place to protect Army recruits before, during and after basic training.
Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen, USAREC; Maj Gen. Lonnie Hibbard, CIMT; and Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe, Fort Benning and the Maneuver Center of Excellence; jointly hosted a virtual town hall on Facebook Live to answer questions about COVID-19 quarantine facilities, testing timelines, and how procedures have changed since the pandemic began.
The full town hall can be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/USAREC/videos/613653059293298/. A summary of the discussion is below.
Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen, USAREC
We are excited to host this town hall to address the concerns recruiters, Future Soldiers and parents have about what lies ahead. I can assure you that our recruiting noncommissioned officers and drill sergeants are committed to the safety, welfare and training of your Soldier as they join our ranks. Safety is a number one priority.
So why do I serve? My father served, both my brothers served, and I love a challenge. Every single day, I’m excited to be a member of this great profession.
I’m a father, grandfather, and 2.5 years ago I had the honor of swearing in one of my sons to the United States Army. He absolutely loves it. I’ve been where you are today, and I’m living proof that the decision to join our great profession is one that your Future Soldier, your loved one will not regret.
I’m honored to introduce this panel to you today. My fellow comrades who are all at the forefront of overseeing training of your Future Soldiers, the young men and women who will join our team. I have Maj. Gen. Lonnie Hibbard, commanding general of the Center for Initial Military Training. I also have Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe, commanding general for Fort Benning and the Maneuver Center of Excellence.
Before I turn it over to them, for those tuning into this virtual town hall, our retirees, our active duty service members, our parents who have served, I want to say thank you for our service to our nation.
Maj. Gen. Lonnie Hibbard, CIMT
I am Maj. Gen. Lonnie Hibbard. I’m the commanding general for the Center for Initial Military Training. My headquarters is responsible for transforming our civilian volunteers into our profession. The safety and welfare of those volunteers is the foremost of everything we do, especially in this time of COVID.
I’m a fourth generation American Soldier in my family. My grandfather served. My great-grandfather served. Regrettably my father was a Marine, not a Soldier, but he still served. And now I have two of my five nephews that have served, and I will get a third as soon as he graduates. This is truly a family business.
Originally from the Midwest, grew up in Minneapolis, born in Green Bay, and went to school in North Dakota, so I kind of own the upper Midwest – that’s where I call home. I continue to serve today, because I enjoy the challenge. Most importantly I enjoy service to our Soldiers and our families every day.
Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe, Fort Benning and MCoE
I’m Maj. Gen. Pat Donahoe, and I’m the commanding general down at Fort Benning and the Maneuver Center of Excellence. We here at Fort Benning train about 30 percent of the new Soldiers that come into our Army every year. That’s One Station Unit Training for infantry, armor, or cavalry or Airborne and Ranger school. We touch an awful lot of the Army every year.
For me, personally, I’m the youngest of five kids and I grew up in New Jersey. I’m the only one who joined the service. In fact my first stint in uniform, I was a Navy Midshipman in Naval ROTC. I got a letter one day from a buddy of mine in Army ROTC, and he was all camouflaged up in a helmet carrying an M16, and I looked myself in the mirror, and I said what am I doing? So I signed out of the Navy program, and went over to the university on Ash Wednesday. If you’re a Roman Catholic, you know that I gave up the Navy for Lent and been living the dream as a Soldier ever since.
QUESTIONS and ANSWERS
Q1. What changes have been made to the basic training environment to keep Soldiers, cadre and community members safe?
A1. (HIBBARD) As COVID started to manifest across the country, we had to look at protocols to implement across basic training to keep our Soldiers safe. We are a microcosm of what society is, as you look at what ends up entering into basic training. What we instituted was a multi-tiered screening process to ensure we keep COVID out of the training base. It starts on the recruiting side and the recruiters’ interaction on a daily basis with the recruits prior to them shipping to MEPS. They screen the trainees 14 days out, 7 days out, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 to ensure they don’t have the symptoms of COVID. Once they arrive at MEPS, the doctors also do a screening through the protocols outlined by the CDC to ensure they don’t have COVID prior to them shipping to our reception battalions. Once they ship to reception battalions, that’s the first time our trainees will actually be tested for COVID. Upon arrival they are screened through the CDC protocol, but actually get COVID tested that day. Those Soldiers who screen or test positive will either go into quarantine or isolation, based on how they screened out. Those Soldiers who are negative will enter basic combat training in what we call controlled monitoring, which is the first two weeks of BCT. Normally BCT is the first 10 weeks of OSUT, but now we call it 2+8, because the first two weeks are controlled monitoring. We moved really all of the academics and those things we have done in a classroom and are easily social distanced, we do that up front in the first two weeks. So we test upon arrival and we do the first two weeks of training watching our trainees, because we know that if they’re exposed to COVID en route, either on the airplane or the bus or however they get to basic combat training, it takes about 5 days before they’ll show symptoms if exposed or test positive but have been asymptomatic. We do this for the first two weeks, and then we test out of the that training around day 10, so that by day 14 they go into the collective training phase of basic combat training, which is called the Red phase of training.
(VEREEN) I would like to add in the first part that our recruiters do upon contracting a new Soldier who’s coming into our ranks. About 14 days out of shipping to MEPS and BCT, we ask them to quarantine away from others, so they are basically in this sort of protective bubble. We give them guidance and requirements to keep them fenced from other people. Now is a FS shows up and tests positive, they will not ship. We will actually reset them back 28 days – double the time – to ensure they are COVID-free before shipping. We do a lot of things up front and the expectation is that we are relying on FS and parents to ensure they’re adhering to guidelines before they go off to BCT.
(DONAHOE) I want to describe a little bit about how a Soldier arrives at Fort Benning and how we do it now in the age of COVID. My first priority is protection of the force, the Soldiers who live, work, and train at Fort Benning, protection of the family members who live and work at Fort Benning, and protections of our civilians who work on the installation. When a soldier lands in Atlanta airport, they are met by our cadre, and they’ll be screened at the airport with a temperature check, asked about their travel history, we’ll talk to them about have they been in contact with anyone who’s COVID positive. Then we’ll ask them if they have symptoms. We can segregate a Soldier who is symptomatic immediately at Atlanta Airport. Then we’ll bring them straight down on Army busses onto Fort Benning, straight to the reception center, so they aren’t interacting with anyone at the airport. We now have them in the protective bubble. Once they’re off the bus, we begin the process of the first 14 days. We’re going to test them within 24 hours and we’re going to test them again in that first 14 days. If a soldier tests positive during that 14 days, they are moved into the Fort Benning recovery center. We have a Facebook and Twitter feed for that recovery center, so I invite you to go take a look at that. We’ve taken our normal barracks and created a center where those who are positive and put them into isolation in that facility. We have 24/7 medical care in that facility. We deliver three meals a day, we have entertainment available. Soldiers have their phones, they have cable TV, wifi, we’ve had some great support from external agencies to bring in other entertainment, books, magazines, but they’re in that facility for their health and safety. We have a separate portion dedicated to soldiers who’ve been in contact with COVID-positive people to see if they contract the virus. That’s critically important to lessen the spread to our people – we’ve got to do that. Our cadre, drill sergeants, staff lead with empathy. Remember what it’s like in your first couple weeks in the Army. That’s stressful enough, so to have an added burden of being exposed to COVID or recovering from COVID. We’re getting better every day in that facility on how we operate and care for the people there and communicate it to them, their families and their loved ones.
(HIBBARD) 45,888 trainees since 10 April have processed through basic training. Through these processes, we’ve identified about 2 percent of these Soldiers test positive. Over 99 percent are asymptomatic, so they start shedding that virus about day five. Procedures we’re implementing are to protect those who haven’t been exposed to COVID-19. Most importantly, only 2 trainees have left the training base with COVID-19. All others have gone on to BCT and AIT.
Q2. If a new recruit is exposed to another recruit who has tested positive, how long will he be held in quarantine and will this affect his graduation date?
A2. (DONAHOE) If they are in close contact with another Soldier who is COVID positive, we will move them into the quarantine side of the recovery center. They will be in that facility for 14 days. They’ll be released from that facility back to their training cohort if they are asymptomatic for the last 24 hours, so if they’re not showing any symptoms, we’re going to return them to their training. The vast majority of those Soldiers will return back to their element they were in and it will not affect their training graduating date.
Q3. Is USAREC and TRADOC in talks with the Army about staggering the arrival of new Soldiers, so there’s not an overflow of new Soldiers arriving now because of the quarantine period?
A3. (VEREEN) Yes, we have made a conscious decision at our in-processing stations to lower the numbers of our Soldiers that are coming through to enter the Army. This is to make sure we are adhering to capacity limits, making sure our Future Soldiers are properly social distanced and making sure that we adhere to the protocols. We are making modifications in order to accommodate all the things based on conditions. I will also share that as the COVID spread, as the conditions change across the states, we’re able to increase the throughput. But we are literally just dialing it up and dialing it back, based on the conditions on the ground. I will also tell you that we have to do a lot of transferring inside vehicles, so we want to make sure we have the proper distance inside of those vehicles. One other change we’ve made, we are allowing family members to transport their own Future Soldier to the MEPS station, if they’d like to. That ensures they’re not in close contact with others. That’s another thing we’re doing at the first part of Soldiers shipping off to basic training.
(HIBBARD) We work daily with MG Vereen and his team to balance the flow of where we send our trainees based on capacity. That’s within reason, and by that I mean we can only send infantrymen to Fort Benning. If they’re just going to BCT, depending on what their Military Occupational Specialty is going to be, I may be able to take them to Fort Sill or Fort Leonard Wood or to Fort Jackson, because I have better capacity at those locations. Certain MOSs are primarily OSUT – infantry, armor, engineer or MP. They go to two locations, although really one location based on your MOS. Our flexibility is decreased a little bit, but we watch every day to ensure we don’t exceed our capacities at those locations.
(DONAHOE) Here at Fort Benning, the only place we can train infantry, the only place we can train future tankers and future scouts is here at Benning. So as we bring in Soldiers to enter that training pipeline, we do have some lag in time when they arrive and when they start their training. This is actually a good thing in the age of COVID, because we can watch before they begin their training pipeline. This goes back to that conversation about wil they miss their training graduation date. This ability to watch for the first 14 days actually helps us keep them with their training cohort. The other challenge we have is our ability to ship once we are complete with the training at Benning. We have to organize the travel – sterile transportation – to get them to their duty stations. We’ve got to build groups of Soldiers to do that. There is some lag post-training to have enough of a group to get them to their follow-on locations.
Q4. Are there plans to get families involved in their Soldiers’ enlistment ceremonies, graduations, etc.?
A4. (VEREEN) We are making some adjustments, depending on where we’re seeing increased positive rates in the country. It’s unfortunate we can’t have families in person to see their Soldier’s swear in. When you look at what we do across the Army, we’re big on customs and traditions. It’s impacted how we retire our Soldiers, after 20, 30 years of service. We’ve had to make tough decisions due to COVID to our historic ceremonies we have in the Army. I understand your concerns. We will work however we can, as outbreaks reduce, we can get family members to witness in person our Soldiers sign up to join our team. We want families to be active participants in that process.
(DONAHOE) We all desire to return to pre-COVID, to have families come to graduation ceremonies. That ceremony is phenomenal…I mean smoke, Army squad coming out of the smoke, great event for Soldiers and families. But our decisions cannot be based on our desire, must be based on disease. Georgia’s positivity rate is still high – seventh in the country in COVID rate – have to take that into consideration. Our number one priority is to protect our Soldiers in the age of COVID. We will bring families back as soon as we can. We know Soldiers and our families want that. We’ll do it as soon as possible without accepting undue risk.
(HIBBARD) It’s all about protection of our force, all the way to that first unit assignment. We spend an enormous amount of time on how we can mitigate that risk. It’s a complex problem. As soon as we can open graduation, we’ll do that.
Q5. Will OSUT training time be same amount of time in COVID?
A5. (Donahoe) It will. The program of instruction is a 22-week program for infantry Soldiers, for armor crewmen, and for cavalry scouts. The instruction time block will remain the same. The vast majority of Soldiers who come to Fort Benning will be here longer than that to ensure they get those 22 weeks of training. That route from reception into the training and then our building of the cohorts to flow out of Fort Benning to their next unit will add time on the front side and the back side of the training.
Q6. Have there been any changes in standards of living at BCT due to COVID-19 measures?
A6. (DONAHOE) We have rearranged the standard barracks. If you think back to any movie you’ve seen and think about a barracks setup. We’ve moved every other bunk off the wall to the center of the room. We’ve ensured we can keep 9 feet between each Soldier while they’re sleeping. There is a fundamental difference in the optic of what occurs inside the training bay. We’ve moved more outdoors. We’ve front-loaded more field time to get Soldiers outside. We know there is a lower transmission rate when we’re outside. What that means is there are a lot of infantry soldiers spending more time in the woods. There’s more young tankers sleeping outside in covered training areas. Keeps them outside and from breathing recycled air. There have been significant changes in the construct of how they live when they go through their training.
(HIBBARD) For the rest of the Army training centers, we’ve done the same thing for the rest of our barracks. We have changed to allow space between Soldiers. We’ve taken the lockers off the walls to provide physical distance and barriers from each other. Most BCT changes are during the first two weeks. Classes are outdoors, and they’re eating outdoors. So until you test out of controlled monitoring, we’re keeping trainees outdoors and in open areas. We’re spreading out in the open air to minimize the risk to everyone.
Q7. Can you talk about quarantine procedures at the other bases? How often are recruits tested at BCT?
A7. (HIBBARD) The procedures are the same. Where they go into isolation or quarantine they’re positive or exposed is a little different across the BCTs. Some have more capacity than others and different MWR capabilities, but we strive to be as similar as possible so trainees have similar experiences. Trainees are tested twice on day 0/1 and then test out of yellow phase into collective training. Now we did test periodically – some parents out there, their sons and daughters were tested 4 or 5 times – to test for the Army to figure out the best testing protocols for the DOD. The end state is twice now. Will only get tested again if someone shows symptoms or if they’ve been exposed to somebody who’s positive in conjunction with contact tracing.
(DONAHOE) The challenge we face is by moving a Soldier in their first 14 days into quarantine or isolation – if you test positive on day 1 – you might miss key points in the pipeline, like getting paid on time. Finance now has liaisons who work at the recovery center to complete paperwork and get them into the pay system. We have to continue to fix that. Mail was another issue. We now have the mailing addresses on those Facebook groups mentioned earlier, and Soldiers are receiving their mail. We are constantly trying to update our processes and make it better for our Soldiers.
Q8. Will grads still have leave after graduation or before they ship directly to their first duty station?
A8. (HIBBARD) They ship directly to their duty station. Then once they’re signed in, the command will make a decision on leave to see their families, go back and pick up their family and move them to their duty assignment. We put them in controlled transportation to get them safely to their duty stations, so they don’t have to go back into quarantine once they get to their duty station.
Q9. Is there a time limit on holdovers from BCT to moving to AIT locations?
A9. (HIBBARD) There is no time limit, but we’re doing everything we can to reduce the holds. Remember every recruit has a contract to get to their AIT seats. We have had hiccups through this process at the onset of COVID. Before it was easy to just put them on a bus. Now we have to contract airplanes and sterile transportation to ensure it’s a controlled environment to keep them COVID-free.
(DONAHOE) At the height of the Army’s reaction to COVID, we stopped moving folks and we generated a good amount of folks in holdover status. We’ve steadily worked thru the process of getting those Soldiers moved to their first assignment. By the end of this week, we’ll only have 100 holdovers. It’s a process of learning how to transport Soldiers and getting the system down to how to do this safely. We’ve worked through the issues and have a systematic way to move quickly in those groups with sterile transportation.
Q10. Can recruits in quarantine receive mail and make phones calls?
A10. (DONAHOE) Absolutely. If they are moved into quarantine or isolation, their phones go with them. We’ve set up for them to receive mail, as well.
Q11. Will recruiters and BCT and OSUT have holiday block leave this year?
A11. (VEREEN) For USAREC, we are going to take holiday block leave. That time is a great opportunity to spend time with families, recharge our batteries. Every opportunity to give time back to our Soldiers and their families, those are important and valuable. For USAREC, we are having block leave. That truly means our troops will be on leave. It’s not a hybrid. It’s time off to spend with our families.
(DONAHOE) GEN Funk has been adamant we’ll have block leave and holiday exodus. I got to Benning in July after 20 months in Korea. I’m taking a good 10 days at the holidays. It’s critically important for the mental health of our trainers to get that time off during holiday.
(HIBBARD) We’ll have restrictions. Looking at the challenges for trainees, if they live in other countries, we may have some restrictions on where people can go. We’ll continue to monitor this around the country and the world to get those people the leave with their families they need.
Q12. What is being done for the mental health for the trainees at the recovery centers?
A12. (DONAHOE) They have cell phones, TVs, books. They are connected to chaplains, church services, mental health professionals. They have access to healthcare providers. We understand how difficult this is for a young man or woman to be pulled out of their cohort. We are leaning in to ensure they remain connected to their families and loved ones, as well as have medical help they need.
Q13. Block leave is an interesting concept in COVID conditions. What about reintegrating when they come back?
A13. (HIBBARD) We have to take it for the health and welfare of our Soldiers, but we’re extending the block leave window. From when we stop to when we start training back up. Everybody is going to have to go through the process of ensuring they’re COVID-free before they go back in to the training environment. Reception of trainees will mean up to 7 days in monitoring phase.
(DONAHOE) We’re in the Army, and we love a problem and we love to plan and innovate, what methods we can apply as we bring holiday exodus back. We’re going to employ every method we can to restart training in a safe and secure environment.
Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe
We take training your loved ones seriously. We’re keeping your Soldier in mind as we do this safely. Two friends of mine, their sons arrive next week to begin training. My guarantee to them is that we’re going to do everything in our power to treat them as you’d expect them to be. We’re going to do our best to keep them COVID-free, and if they get this disease, we’re going to take care of them 24/7 until they’re healthy.
Maj. Gen. Lonnie Hibbard
I can guarantee you that commanders at our training centers have that exact same passion to take care of our force and lead with compassion and empathy as we deal with COVID-19. We’re adjusting our protocol and procedures at the speed of COVID. When we learn something new, have new guidance, we’re implementing it as fast as we can across our centers and posts. Thank you for your time, and I appreciate you allowing me to participate in this town hall.
Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen
I’ll put this in an analogy that speaks to my hobby. When it was announced back in March that COVID was spreading and the NBA announced the end of their season, I knew this was serious. In the Army we are continuing to improve how we’re doing this. We’re committed to keeping the safety paramount for every single Soldier. We’re going to adhere to guidelines and protocols to keep everyone safe. We’re excited to have these Future Soldiers joining our team and our ranks. Thank you for your time and for everything you do and your service to our nation. We are honored to be able to talk to you to