WASHINGTON -- When the coronavirus swept through the European and Indo-Pacific regions earlier this year, Army units stationed in those parts of the world had to immediately adapt to the pandemic.
With 20,000 Soldiers originally planned to leave the U.S. for Defender-Europe 20 in the spring, leaders quickly modified the rapid deployment exercise to about 6,000 Soldiers in order to safely train.
“There was a very quick transition to dealing with coronavirus,” said Brig. Gen. Christopher Norrie, commander of the 7th Army Training Command (ATC) based in Grafenwoehr, Germany. “We did not have a choice. We're here in Europe for a purpose.”
On the other side of the world, Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Division (ID) also adjusted by taking extra precautions and rigorous screening for COVID-19 to complete training exercises.
As part of the annual Pacific Pathways exercise series, about 1,400 division Soldiers traveled to Thailand in February before the global pandemic. Soldiers ended up training with the Royal Thai Army in smaller groups as safety protocols went into effect. Over 5,000 Soldiers then took part in Lightning Forge, a brigade-level exercise held on Oahu, under similar measures.
Currently 5,500 division Soldiers are training at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, where they remain in a protective training bubble while taking regular temperature scans and health wellness checks. Their exercise also included training with companies from the Thai and Indonesian armies.
Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, 25th ID commander, said that none of his division Soldiers have yet contracted COVID-19 during the exercises.
“They are ready to do anything that the nation asks them to do,” Jarrard said. “And I would say the same thing for the division as a whole. While we have had to cancel some things … ever since June we have been executing all of the collective and individual training events that we originally had planned.”
NCOs ensure safe training in Europe
The ability of 7th ATC Soldiers to innovate and adapt to safety measures helped contain the virus’ spread, Norrie said. Noncommissioned officers continually monitored Soldiers for symptoms. Units held exercises in a bubble to prevent cases and comply with German and Polish safety standards. Soldiers from nations outside of Germany were required to do a 14-day quarantine.
“Our sergeants have been absolutely incredible, displaying exceptional innovation and leadership through some difficult times in fighting for every opportunity to train,” Norrie said, adding the Army has remained in contact with host nations to stay current with local ordinances. “Because of that, we have not seen a degradation in our overall readiness.”
Norrie said that NCOs from his command approached COVID-19 restrictions as they would a real-world combat scenario where a virus could potentially factor into combat operations.
“COVID might be an example of a biological agent that might exist on a battlefield at some point in the future,” Norrie said. “In that environment, we might ask our formations to first quickly confirm the extent of exposure and then to isolate those that may have been exposed to confirm the prevalence of spread so that we can effectively treat that team.”
In June, about 4,000 Soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division (CD) and 3rd Infantry Division took part in Operation Allied Spirit, an exercise focused on improving interoperability among European and NATO partners. About 2,000 Polish soldiers also participated in the training, which included a successful a river crossing with a division-sized element against a simulated opposing force.
During Allied Spirit, 1st CD provided mission observers remotely from Fort Hood, Texas, who acted as mission command for elements from the division, 3rd ID and the Polish military.
“We modified exercises and our daily lives to protect our formations, families and host nations,” Norrie said. “But we never stopped training either at the small unit level or at scale.”
After Defender-Europe 20 ended in July, the 7th ATC oversaw two additional brigade combat training center rotations at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center at Hohenfels Training Area, Germany.
In September, the 7th ATC also hosted Combined Resolve XIV, a readiness exercise that focuses on partner nation interoperability. During it, Soldiers from active-duty and National Guard units trained alongside troops from Ukraine, Italy, France, Lithuania and other European nations at Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels.
Additionally, paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade returned to Vicenza, Italy, with no cases of COVID-19 after participating in a jump exercise with French paratroopers earlier this month. And the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade is currently exercising with French soldiers, Norrie said.
The Joint Multinational Simulation Center, which also falls under 7th ATC, may have been the most aptly equipped to provide training in a COVID environment. Norrie credited the center for giving Soldiers a blend of virtual and field training to meet readiness goals while mitigating the risk of infection.
Protective measures in the Pacific
Mitigating the virus also presented a unique challenge for training in Southeast Asia, when Soldiers from the 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade had to self-quarantine twice: first at their home station at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, and in Thailand, where they were also tested again for the virus.
About 60 combat advisors from the brigade went on to successfully train Thai soldiers on weapons systems and tactics, including courses on Stryker brigades in August.
But units still had to deal with delays in their training schedules.
Maj. Josh Fender, executive officer of the 25th ID’s 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, said COVID-19 impacted his unit’s training in Thailand from a time perspective, as contact tracing and health screenings sometimes delayed activities.
However, the pandemic did not prevent units from achieving mission objectives. Fender said that daily coordination with the Royal Thai Army helped identify the best prevention methods during the exercises.
“Early linking in with the counterpart and making sure that partnership [is] a priority,” Fender said of the lessons learned. “It’s not just for training objectives, but you can continue to build strong relationships.”