WASHINGTON — Army senior leaders held a virtual town hall Tuesday, asserting that the service remains open for business as it continues to mitigate effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“These are truly extraordinary times that we live in,” said Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy. “And it takes measures and great people to get through that.”
While encouraging Soldiers to maintain social distancing and keep their hands clean, McCarthy said new safety gear is on its way to help protect them and their families.
In a week or so, several million masks are expected to be distributed across the force. Until then, leaders say Soldiers can use their neck gaiter, a scarf or a neutral-colored cloth to cover their face if they need to be within six feet of another person.
“This is all about protecting the force, so we can protect the nation,” said Gen. James C. McConville, the Army’s chief of staff, adding that uniforms should be not used as masks since they are chemically treated.
He also credited the innovation of the 1st Special Forces Group for creating their own surgical masks and delivering hundreds of them to the Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
The Army’s testing capability is also being ramped up with new machines coming on board in the next few weeks. The delay was partly due to the federal government prioritizing machines to the hardest-hit areas in the country, McCarthy said.
“We’ll have this at all of our installations in a very robust capacity across the force,” he said.
The U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick, Maryland, has also been working nonstop on its antivirals and vaccination efforts with national laboratories and private industry.
There are now five different tracts with 24 different candidates for potential vaccines. The Army’s vaccine candidate, McCarthy said, is moving into primate testing this summer.
This is the most “collaborative event in vaccination research, maybe in the history of mankind,” he said. “And they’re moving at a quick pace.”
Even with recruiter offices closed, the Army continues to be in “very good shape” with enlisting future Soldiers, the secretary said.
The U.S. Army Recruiting Command has already found success in reaching potential recruits through the virtual space, which may alter the way it recruits in the future.
“It may change the business model over time of how we recruit people,” McCarthy said. “Less of the brick and mortar, more of the virtual and then ultimately when they go to sign a contract they meet face-to-face [with a recruiter].”
Out of every crisis, McConville said there is always an opportunity to learn different ways to accomplish a mission.
“We’re going to learn from that, and we’re going to grow,” the general said.
On Monday, the Army began to halt recruit movement to basic training for at least two weeks.
The brief pause, McConville said, will allow the Army to boost its testing capability at initial-entry training sites. Once new recruits show up, they will be segregated and screened for the virus. After being cleared, they will be placed in a “protective bubble” so they can complete training with others who have been cleared.
“By doing this, we think we’re going to be able to take care of all these young men and women who are coming into the military,” the general said.
Those facing a delay to be shipped to basic training may also be eligible for up to $6,000 in incentive pay, depending on the length of the delay, Army leaders said.
“Just remember, the Army is still open,” said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston. “We’re still doing active recruiting. So if there’s anybody out there who is ready to join the Army, we’re still open for business.
“We’re just finding new and creative ways to do our virtual recruiting.”
With permanent change-of-station moves on hold until May 11, the Army has now allowed Soldiers on orders to extend up to a year at their current duty station.
Some Soldiers may still be eligible to move if they have already shipped their household goods and vehicles, and could even receive allowances to cover their accommodations if ordered to stay isolated after completing a move.
Those interested in staying at their current location can submit a Department of the Army Form 4187 through their chain of command.
“We definitely want to stabilize our Soldiers,” Grinston said.
Further travel restrictions have also left some Soldiers in training exercises and combat operations in a holding pattern.
Current plans are to get units back from training exercises as soon as they end or if conditions improve for them to return sooner. Once back, they will need to go through the proper screening and two-week quarantine period.
As for those in combat, some Soldiers may be required to stay longer than their original deployments as the nation fights the virus at home.
“They are doing incredibly important work,” McConville said. “They are really making a difference. And as soon as their mission is complete, we will get them back.”
Even with social distancing and gyms closed, McConville said Soldiers can still exercise on their own to prepare for the Army Combat Fitness Test.
“People still have the opportunity to work out and we want their focus to be working on those events that are associated with the [ACFT],” he said. “Because that’s the test that actually gets you ready for combat.”
While the ACFT is still set to become the official test of record on Oct. 1, senior leaders said they’ll reassess that timeline if certain conditions cannot be met — such as all units having the proper equipment and enough time to prepare their Soldiers.
“When those conditions are set, we’ll make that decision,” McConville said.
As the Army shifts its mission to help combat the virus, Grinston asked Soldiers to also adapt during the crisis and perhaps use this time to find new goals and reconnect with family.
“Life kind of just threw us a curveball,” he said. “That’s just the way life is. It’s not always the fastball right down the middle.
“We’ve got the greatest Army in the world, and we’re going to have to adjust.