Volunteers at US Army base in South Korea churn out hundreds of cloth masks for their community

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 9, 2020

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CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — As U.S. troops everywhere are increasingly required to wear masks to ward off coronavirus, a group of volunteers has begun churning out cloth coverings to make up for shortages nearly two months into the pandemic in South Korea.

The volunteers, including civilians, military spouses and even some soldiers, set up an assembly line operation at the arts and crafts center Tuesday on Camp Humphreys, which is the main Army garrison on the divided peninsula.

The morale, welfare and recreation division has provided more than 500 yards of fabric, thread, elastic and sewing machines, said Kelly Schmidt, one of the main organizers and the wife of Eighth Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Schmidt.

Inside, the cotton fabric allows breathability; outside, the mask is colored black to comply with military standards.

Other colors and patterns also are being used since masks will be provided to the entire community, including children and other family members.

“We’re also making to-go kits for people who are not comfortable in the group setting or want to stay home because they have little kids or are working,” Schmidt said. “Each kit will make 50 masks.”

The need for masks increased after Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Sunday that U.S. service members must wear something to cover the nose and mouth area when they’re unable to maintain six-foot social distancing standards.

The directive applies to all personnel including troops, dependents, civilian employees and contractors, Esper said as concern rose over a spike in coronavirus infections in the ranks.

The Pentagon won’t issue masks and proper surgical masks will be reserved for the “appropriate personnel,” Esper said, adding people should make facial coverings from household material if needed.

Sewers with varying levels of experience stepped up at Camp Humphreys, making rectangle and cup-style masks while other volunteers cut elastic and patterns.

Craig Frank, 48, of Vermillion, S.D., teamed up with his 16-year-old daughter, Anastasia, to produce more than 50 masks on Wednesday.

“I’m the sewer in the family, and I was just sitting around at home on leave, so I figured I’d come help,” he said as Anastasia ran two pieces of cloth though her machine next to him.

“She’s basically taking the two pieces and sewing them together with what’s called an overcast stitch, which helps prevent the fabric from coming unraveled,” he said. “Then I’m actually taking the two pieces and sewing the masks together.”

Volunteers were complying with revised guidance from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which now supports cloth masks even though they aren’t medical grade.

“Based on the new guidance from the CDC, we figured we had the capability to make masks within our own community,” Camp Humphreys garrison commander Col. Michael Tremblay said during a tour of the operation. “Before that, making the masks required technical expertise that we didn’t have.”

The masks will be laundered, and teams will begin distributing them Friday on Camp Humphreys, the U.S. Forces Korea headquarters and home to more than 37,000.

Nearly 550 masks were washed and ready to pass out on Friday, while about 65 volunteers already had produced at least 300 more on Thursday, Schmidt said.

The cloth masks produced by the volunteers with the Camp Humphreys initiative, which has been dubbed “Sew Essential,” are a stopgap solution, officials said.

USFK has ordered 130,000 masks that were due to arrive on the divided peninsula within the next week.

“The plan is to distribute two black masks to every individual,” said Marine Corps Col. Eric Daughrety, who is part of the USFK task force dealing with the virus.

He also stressed that people need to continue other measures against the virus, including social distancing, vigorous hand washing and staying home if sick.

“This mask is not a silver bullet to give you a force field,” Daughrety said Wednesday in a Facebook live community update.

Commissaries, post exchanges and other common facilities were preparing to unveil policies requiring people to wear masks inside, officials said.

The wearing of masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus has long been a controversial subject for the American military in South Korea.

USFK previously banned service members from wearing face masks in uniform except when air pollution reaches a certain level.

But that policy already had been relaxed after South Korean officials in local communities near bases complained that Americans weren’t wearing masks during the coronavirus outbreak.

Masks also have been in short supply with base stores frequently running out.

Twitter: @kimgamel

Craig Frank, 48, of Vermillion, S.D., teamed up with his daughter, Anastasia Frank, 16, to sew cloth masks as part of a volunteer initiative for the military community at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

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