FORT HOOD, Texas–Redeploying an Armored Brigade Combat Team from overseas requires extensive planning and risk mitigation and involves lots of moving parts. It is never simple, but add in the element of fighting a global pandemic at the same time and a unit is faced with additional challenges.
That is exactly what the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team “Greywolf”, 1st Cavalry Division had to contend with as it deployed its equipment back to the United States following a nine-month rotation to the Republic of Korea.
The brigade began prepping and planning for port operations in Korea around the time COVID-19 started to appear in China. At the time it was a concern that leaders kept an eye on, but it had not become an issue in Korea. The Republic of Korea government implemented precautions including screening at airports and eventually restricting direct flights from China.
By January the world was slowly learning about the virus and its possible impact. The unit replacing Greywolf— 2nd Brigade “Dagger”, 1st Infantry Division—began arriving at the end of the month. The Soldiers responsible for downloading Dagger’s equipment and uploading Greywolf’s arrived to the southern port of Gwang Yang in early February.
“When we arrived at the port Coronavirus was more than just a blip on our radar, but it still was not a huge issue in Korea at the time,” said Maj. Brandon Lapehn, the officer in charge of the port operations. “We made sure to take preventive measures that we conduct at any time in a deployed environment including establishing handwashing stations and ensuring that we maintain good environmental health standards. But that was before patient 31.”
Patient 31 is the Korean civilian identified as a carrier of COVID-19 and member of a reclusive church in Daegu, which is north of the port of Gwang Yang. Patient 31 was responsible for the surge in the outbreak in Korea, which saw its total cases of COVID-19 jump by thousands in the matter of days. Overall the church alone had over 5,000 infected members by mid-March.
“We had completed download of the vessel and were working on loading the vehicles onto rail for onward movement before uploading our own vehicles when COVID-19 blew up in Korea,” Lapehn said. “We had a huge concern as our Soldiers were living in tents and working so closely to each other at the time.”
United States Forces Korea acted immediately to protect the force by restricting non-essential movement and initiating stringent screening standards at the gates to their bases in Korea. For the Soldiers at the port it meant reinforcing preventive measures such as proper hygiene and screening anyone trying to come into the port area. They also established a temperature checkpoint for Soldiers and continuously screened for any symptoms associated with COVID-19.
By February 29th the team of 147 Greywolf and Dagger Soldiers got the job done without issue and moved back to Camp Humphreys for deployment home.
The over 200 pieces of combat equipment spent the next few weeks crossing the Pacific Ocean to the Port Hueneme near Los Angeles. The equipment arrived around March 18th just as the United States was seeing a major increase in cases and the Department of Defense issued a stop movement order for most military personnel.
For the team of Soldiers responsible for the download of the equipment and its onward movement to Fort Hood the challenges were similar to the Soldiers in Korea, but with the added benefit of foreknowledge and the experience of the Korea port operations team.
“One of the first things our senior medic and I did was meet with the Naval Base Health Clinic OIC, LT (USN) Bernadette Garcia,” said Maj. Hayden Scardina, executive officer of 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment and port officer in charge. “During our meeting, we informed her of our mission, the number of personnel conducting the mission, and we developed a “React to Suspected COVID-19” battle drill for our Soldiers as well as the service members from the 834th transportation battalion and 1397th Deployment and Distribution Support Battalion.”
The benefit of having experienced the COVID-19 outbreak in Korea was the knowledge and awareness of actions that needed to be taken to protect the Soldiers at the port. However, just like in Korea the conditions on the ground in California and the U.S. changed rapidly, which meant the port team had to adjust.
According to Scardina they implemented restrictions on the port team to include limiting the detail to their place of duty, the dining facility and hotel rooms, as well as conducting a phased return to Fort Hood, Texas of the detail over the course of four days instead of all in one flight.
“In short, we employed lessons learned from Korea,” Scardina said. “We separated ourselves from all non-essential activities, we engaged in social distancing, we enforced hygiene standards and we coordinated with leaders at Naval Base Ventura County who we relied on to sustain our mission.”
Most of the combat platforms were shipped by train to other locations to be turned in for future modernization efforts, but the wheeled vehicles and Bradley Fighting vehicles were loaded on to trains for their return to Fort Hood.
This last step before the vehicles were in the motorpools presented one more opportunity for the brigade to execute an essential mission while practicing preventive measures to slow the spread of the virus and protect the force. At the Rail Operations Center on Fort Hood, the operations to receive and download equipment became an experiment in conducting disbursed operations in a confined area.
According to Sgt. Augustine Vargas, a medic with 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, unlike the port operations where the teams were brought in together and pretty much confined together throughout operations, the rail operations at Fort Hood brought in individuals who went home at the end of the day. “This meant we had to fine-tune how things were done at the ports and conduct a thorough screening of our Soldiers each day before they entered the rail yard,” he said.
The screening was similar to ones conducted in Korea and California where Soldiers were asked a series of questions to determine if they were a risk to the operations or had been exposed. If they had any symptoms, the medics would take their vitals and then determine the next course of action to include possible quarantine.
Once in the yard Soldiers had to practice social distancing while downloading the vehicles, which is not a small feat. The trains are broken down into lines of railcars, each with vehicles on them. The vehicles are chained to the railcar and must first be unhooked prior to downloading them. Normally this requires teams of 2-4 Soldiers working to wrench off the bolts and remove the chains from the front and rear of the vehicles. Instead, one soldier worked the front chains while another worked the rear chains ensuring at least six feet of separation.
“This was all new to us,” Vargas said. “We are used to being prepared for injuries at the rail yard during these types of operations, but also being observant and ensuring that Soldiers kept separated as much as possible was a new challenge.”
Despite the challenges, the first train was downloaded and the vehicles moved back to the motorpools all within a day. Over the coming days more trains arrived with more vehicles and with containers and the rail team was back at it, maintaining the readiness of the brigade while protecting the Soldiers.
“I was told a long time ago ‘Mission first, people always,’” Lapehn said. “That was the challenge we had. Anytime you are doing operations like this you have safety concerns and always think about how to mitigate the risk, but this, in a lot of ways was something new, something we had never experienced before. So how do you ensure a mission that has a global or strategic impact is executed while protecting the force from an unseen enemy?”
Over the course of three months, Greywolf did just that without issue.