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Army’s ritual of Block Leave lives on during pandemic; officials hope changes will keep new soldiers safe

Soldiers are departing from Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport. (Joe Fudge / Daily Press/TNS)
December 13, 2020

Keeping the Army’s newest soldiers safe from COVID-19 is a top priority at Fort Eustis’s U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training — and the latest challenge is the happy year-end ritual of Block Leave.

But although the pandemic has brought changes for new soldiers — notably, an end to off-post excursions and staff leave and adopt-a-soldier for Thanksgiving programs — Maj. Gen. Lonnie Hibbard and his team have found a way to let 45,000 young soldiers on posts across the nation and even overseas get home for the holidays.

That’s possible in part because of sacrifices new soldiers and their trainers have made — for instance, more than 4,500 soldiers at Fort Eustis received their initial training in helicopter repair and maintenance and in cargo handling and maritime operations since the pandemic started, but only four have tested positive for the coronavirus, Hibbard said.

“Most of these soldiers are 18 to 22 years old, they haven’t seen their families for a long time — 10 weeks of basic combat training followed by more weeks of advanced individual training.”

That training can run for 40 to 52 weeks for soldiers headed for cyber or intelligence specialties.

“They’ve been pretty much stuck to barracks room, the bowling alley and the PX when they’re not training,” Hibbard said. “For those who joined and raised their right hands when the pandemic started, it’s already been 40 weeks.”

Tight controls on where leaders and trainers go, including cancellation of trips for summer leave, mean they deserve a holiday break too, Hibbard said.

But those controls are why other travelers seeing a bus-load of soldiers disembark at the Newport News or Norfolk airports don’t need to worry. Before soldiers start boarding the buses that will take them to airports or bus or railroad stations to travel home, they’ll be screened for any signs of COVID-19. Before that, the new soldiers’ leaders have been working “soldier-by-soldier on leave plans,” Hibbard said.

That’s the usual practice, but this year it’s meant daily checks with the several states’ ever-changing travel restrictions, quarantine requirements and social distancing rules. When restrictions tighten, leaders pitch in to help with getting credits for tickets or making other holiday arrangements. Leaders and trainers keep stressing the need for social distancing and to wear masks.

At Fort Eustis, where the rush of several hundred block leave soldiers has led to a longstanding ritual at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport as people from the community stop by with snacks or just to socialize, there’s been an effort this year to spread out traveling soldiers between the Peninsula airport and airports in Norfolk and Richmond.

The Army started booking tickets early, too. The aim was the signal to airlines that they needed to have enough planes to meet the need, Hibbard said.

It’s meant extra work, but “the big challenge comes at the back end,” Hibbard said. That’s when soldiers return.

In addition to temperature and symptom checks to screen all the returning soldiers, training facilities are set for stepped-up monitoring and social distancing measures.

It’s a sort-of quarantine, where soldiers will find themselves in smaller units. The idea is that if one soldier is positive, the risk of a wider spread before he or she can be isolated is reduced.

There will be testing for soldiers training where the usual social distancing practices — staying more than six feet away from others, for instance — isn’t possible.

The Army has also written to every block leave soldier’s family, asking them to help soldiers maintain the social distancing, mask-wearing and hygiene measures that have worked well on post. Hibbard hopes that will help reinforce the intensive, repeated messages the Army’s been giving soldiers during training.

Part of that message is that getting COVID-19 means isolation, and a delay completing training.

“Nobody in basic combat training wants to be there even one more day,” Hibbard said.

“Nineteen-year-olds going home to see spouse and kids aren’t going to want to delay finishing [advanced individual] training and getting a posting where they can all be together again,” he added

And there will be drill sergeants and other Army leaders at airports, from major hubs like Atlanta or Charlotte to Newport News, Norfolk and Richmond, to keep an eye out to make sure traveling soldiers are following the COVID-19 rules.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep soldiers and their communities safe,” Hibbard said.

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