By Sgt. Nathaniel Free
204th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade
CAMP WILLIAMS, Utah—True to their unit motto, the 204th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, Utah National Guard, conducted annual training with “Solidarity and Purpose” and some additional health precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Aug. 1-15th, 2020, Camp Williams, Bluffdale, Utah. Annual training, or AT, is a required training period that spans approximately two weeks, allowing part-time Soldiers to stay proficient with crucial skills in their various fields of expertise. The unit’s Headquarters, Headquarters Company was originally scheduled to conduct annual training in June, but because of COVID-19 restrictions, AT was rescheduled for August.
Other changes were made to training to keep Soldiers safe while keeping them ready.
“To mitigate the risk of community transmission of COVID-19 within our ranks, everything was shifted to squad-driven training,” said Command Sgt. Maj. John McNichol, brigade senior enlisted leader.
A squad is the smallest element in the U.S. Army, typically composed of four to 10 Soldiers under the leadership of a sergeant or staff sergeant.
“It really put the burden for training, as it should, on those front-line leaders,” McNichol said.
Not only was this shift to squad-focused training an effective way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but it also aligned with the “This is My Squad” initiative first introduced by Sgt. Maj. Michael A. Grinston, sergeant major of the Army. “This is My Squad” promotes unit cohesion.
“When the decision was made to conduct our annual training, we had to balance the risk of COVID-19 with the demands on our organization to be ready for anything,” McNichol explained.
According to the Utah.gov coronavirus website, Salt Lake County, where the annual training took place, was in a Low-Risk “yellow” Phase. The public health protocols for yellow include general guidelines such as 6-foot social distancing, avoiding groups of more than 50 people, and face coverings worn when physical distancing is difficult to maintain.
“We have been fortunate to not have any cases of community transmission among our Soldiers at any drill or training event,” McNichol confirmed.
According to McNichol, the unit adapted to the health protocols by eliminating all group gatherings and requiring face coverings at all times. Accountability was accomplished at a squad level, with regular reporting through phone calls, text messages or video teleconferencing, rather than in large, official formations.
Additionally, symptoms checks were conducted at the Camp Williams gate and at the entrance to facilities. Temperature spot checks were done throughout the training period.
“The armed forces are all about standards and achieving excellence in those standards, and the COVID-19 operational environment is the new standard,” said Col. Woodrow Miner, brigade commander, 204th MEB. “Wearing a mask, washing your hands with increased frequency, training at a squad level, and maintaining social distancing is the new standard in order to meet my intent in training.”
Despite the added health protocol restrictions, 204th MEB Soldiers were not only able to conduct their required annual training, but also completed several additional certifications.
Twenty-five Soldiers participated in Tactical Combat Casualty Care training, a research-based Department of Defense program that teaches life-saving techniques and strategies for providing care for battlefield trauma.
Twelve commissioned and non-commissioned officers were qualified as Rage Safety Officers during a training hosted by Camp Williams’ range control.
Seventeen soldiers received training on Command Post of the Future, a software system that allows commanders to visualize the battlefield and communicate their intent with superiors, peers and subordinates in real time
Fourteen Soldiers received bus driver training and certifications, better preparing the unit for large-scale movement to an upcoming warfighter exercise planned for late fall.
A warfighter exercise is division-level combat simulation designed to test the communication networks, warfighting capability and readiness of every unit involved. As the Soldiers of the 204th MEB prepare to participate in the exercise, the real-world pandemic has become an integrated piece of the simulation.
“Like everything else, it’s an evolving process,” said Sgt. Maj. Jed Lundell, the operations sergeant major. “There’s courses of action already in place to mitigate risk.”
Some of the courses of action for the warfighter exercise include sleeping in individual tents, open sleeping bays with single-man beds that are separated by barriers, and dining facilities that offer a “walk-up” window allowing Soldiers to receive their food without entering a building.
“It’s a huge operation and everybody is concerned,” Lundell said. “Warfighter is extremely important to our war-fighting abilities and our integration with the 4th Infantry Division, but equally important is our COVID-19 safety measures and bringing everyone home safe.”
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