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Back from Block Leave, the Army’s youngest soldiers return safe from COVID-19

By DAVE RESS | The Daily Press | Published: January 28, 2021

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(Tribune News Service) — Walking through the Atlanta airport on the first day of Block Leave last month to see how getting 45,000 young soldiers home for the holidays was going, Major Gen. Lonnie Hibbard spotted one wide-eyed and looking a bit lost.

“I asked if I could help him find what he was looking for, and he said ‘No sir, I’ve just never been in an airport before. It’s really cool,’ ” Hibbard said. “It’s easy to forget ... for many of our soldiers, traveling this way is a new thing.”

Just as it was a new thing for Hibbard and his team at the Fort Eustis-based Center for Initial Military Training to tackle the challenge of getting soldiers home, and back, without falling ill with COVID-19.

The result of their efforts: of those 45,000 soldiers, only 0.9% — less than one in one hundred — tested positive. That includes soldiers who tested positive the day they returned, and those who so did during a 14-day quasi-quarantine — the Army calls it restriction of movement — immediately afterward. Soldiers were isolated as soon as they tested positive.

By way of comparison, in the past several months, about 4% to 5% of recruits reporting for basic training have tested positive, a figure that spiked to 10% in early January but looks to be headed down again, Hibbard said.

The low rate of student-soldiers falling ill after Block Leave reflects a major education effort — but also something pretty basic to Army life, Hibbard said.

“You get close to the people you train with, they’re your friends. Knowing that if you get sick, you’ll go into isolation, miss graduating with them and have to make a whole new set of friends, is a big incentive,” he said.

It helps, too, that most soldiers are eager to finish training and move on to a duty station, he said.

Generally speaking, the student-soldiers traveling during Block Leave are the youngest in the Army — they’ve typically joined soon after high school and are either still in basic training or in the first months of school, learning the specialized skills the Army requires of them.

“We’ve got young men and women here at Fort Eustis who learn how to fix gas turbines in 20 weeks,” Hibbard said. “You can ask them if they liked tinkering around with cars before they joined the Army and many will say no.”

Hibbard said he and leaders of Army training facilities had a lot of help keeping the soldiers safe. Commanders wrote to each soldier’s family to make sure they understood what their sons, daughters and spouses needed to do during the holiday break.

“They asked for help to keep our soldiers and their families safe ... but each commander wrote their own letter. At Fort Rucker [the Army’s main aviation base], they reminded families that soldiers would be returning for training in a cockpit with another soldier; at Fort Benning, that they’d be headed back onto the ranges,” Hibbard said.

Airport, U.S.O. and community volunteers at airports all pitched in to smooth soldiers’ travel, Hibbard said. That included arranging for meals, snacks and separate areas to reduce exposure to other travelers who may not have been as careful about staying safe during a pandemic.

Upon their return, the soldiers stayed in groups of no more than 30 — the same limit the Army set for its 60-soldier basic training barracks when the pandemic started.

The idea was to limit exposure if a soldier did fall ill after being cleared by the test when returning.

At Fort Eustis, where more than more than 4,500 soldiers a year do their initial training in helicopter repair and maintenance and in cargo handling and maritime operations, that was made easier because student-soldiers live in two-person rooms.

At this point, soldiers back from block leave are clear from that restriction of movement order — the focus for the Centers for Intial Military Training now is on vaccination, Hibbard said.

It’s voluntary, and there’s a lot of misinformation floating around, creating much uncertainty among soldiers, Hibbard said.

“We want to stress that it’s important for them, important for their friends and their families and important for the mission, and for national security,” he said. “We want to make sure the younger soldiers are talking to each other about this.”

That sort of conversation is the best way of spreading a message in an Army that depends on small-unit cohesion, he said.

“We put a big emphasis on teams in the Army,” he added.

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