Readiness in the Time of Coronavirus

We spend a lot of time in the Army talking about readiness. But what does readiness look like in the face of a pandemic? Do we stop training? Stop pushing out new equipment? Where does one draw the line when it comes to providing a trained and ready force, while also looking after the health of the force? Can you practice social distancing while striving for readiness?

I mean, just ask snipers, they’re experts at social distancing. Or maybe anti-social distancing.

On September 29, 1918, a U.S. Army doctor stepped away from his wards to pen a letter to a friend and fellow physician. The Army was three days into the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (September 26-November 11) in France – America’s bloodiest single battle of all time – but this physician was fighting a different enemy. He described the situation to his friend:

“Camp Devens is near Boston, and has about 50,000 men, or did have before this epidemic broke loose. It also has the base hospital for the Division of the Northeast. This epidemic started about four weeks ago, and has developed so rapidly that the camp is demoralized and all ordinary work is held up till it has passed. All assemblages of soldiers taboo. These men start with what appears to be an attack of la grippe or influenza, and when brought to the hospital they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. “

Source: A Letter From Camp Devens

Just a few days earlier, on September 17, the announcement had been made that, “Owing to the epidemic of Spanish influenza at Camp Devens, Army and Navy celebration day postponed.” Out of the 35-50,000 U.S. troops stationed at the National Army cantonment at Camp Devens in late 1918/early 1919, 15,000 would become infected. By January, over 800 had died. But it might have been far worse had not officials begun the crackdown.

This scene was recreated at National Army cantonments across the country. These were temporary installations set up by the Army as processing and training centers for the millions of draftees pouring in. Essentially, they were readiness centers: men were processed into depot brigades, underwent initial inspections, were issued uniforms, and received some rudimentary training before being pushed to either advanced training schools or to other units.

And in the fall of 1918, readiness was uppermost on the Army’s mind. Having been engaged in combat action in France for just about a year, the force there had swollen from just a few thousand men in October of 1917, to over 2 million troops by the time of the Meuse-Argonne. As part of the Allied push to end the bloodletting once and for all, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was doing its part along the Meuse River and in the Argonne Forest. Casualties were catastrophically high that October, and more divisions were badly needed to take over the grinding drives.

Those divisions were filled with draftees, since the Army had realized very early in 1917 that volunteerism just wasn’t going to cut it. But in the middle of this very urgent need for more troops, the War Department stopped the draft. It even debated stopping the movement of any troops to France, at all. All training camps were quarantined. Soldier health was determined to be the prime driver of readiness.

The War Department was not prepared to risk the debacle of 1898. Over 20,000 recruits contracted typhoid fever in their mobilization camps in the U.S., with over 1,500 dying of the disease. This was all before they even reached anywhere even close to the front lines. Poor sanitation and little awareness of how to deal with pandemics proved to be the underlying cause for these largely needless losses.

The Influenza of 1918 proved to be far deadlier than typhus in 1898. However, the Army’s reaction – quarantines, halting unnecessary travel, and education – prevented things from getting even worse than they could have.

While COVID-19 may in no way be as devastating as the Influenza of 1918 – public health has improved, there’s no major world conflict that is throwing millions of people into contact with each other, etc – many commanders might be asking, “What is the priority now?” As it was in 1918, the health of the force is our utmost readiness priority. The Army has already begun implementing travel bans, quarantines, and other protective actions.

Even during this, however, we need to be mindful of the needs of the force. Do families have everything they need? Are reserve component Soldiers experiencing hardships due to job loss because of the pandemic? Are they aware of the benefits available? Is the chain of command issuing clear, precise, and timely guidance?

Think of ways to continue to build readiness without Soldiers being near each other. Platoon and squad leaders can build practical exercises that can be done from home. There are always evaluations to be done and distance learning modules to be knocked out. Mandatory training briefs can be pushed out in slideshow form with some kind of check on learning involved. Don’t forget that many Soldiers might not have CAC readers at home, so ensure they’re receiving information on their civilian emails. Consider some sort of group video chat on Zoom or Google Hangouts where team or squad members can do PT together, or just talk about the things that concern them. Loneliness can inhibit the immune system, so let’s make sure we’re checking in with each other if quarantines begin in earnest.

Leadership matters in times of crisis, so be that leader for your troops. But at a safe distance. Readiness during a time of pandemic looks like good communication, care for those who need a helping hand, and ideas for how to train in non-standard, safe ways. We’ll get through this together.

Cover photo: Extreme social distancing.

U.S. Army Photo: The current ghillie suit, known as the Flame Resistant Ghillie System, is shown here. A new suit, called the Improved Ghillie System, or IGS, is under development. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) (Photo by David Vergun)

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