Life support for Soldiers in the Desert

Daily temperature checks, diligent isolation and quarantined procedures have proved to be effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19 during the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team’s National Training Center rotation at Fort Irwin, California. On July 26, 2020, Spc. Watson at the 204th Medical Company Area Support Brigade Aid Station checks temperatures at sick call.

July 30, 2020 (FORT IRWIN, California) — While the eye of the National Training Center is on the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division and their 14-day full-scale desert exercise – there is group of nearly 500 additional Minnesota National Guard Soldiers at Fort Irwin, California, supporting them.  

“Our main job is to support the 1/34th ABCT with logistics. Any life support that they need, we have the resources to support them, and we do,” said Command Sgt. Major Juan Esquivel with the 347th Regional Support Group.  

This is the third time in five years the 347th RSG has played a support role for the 1/34th ABCT. In 2016 the unit supported the brigade during a NTC rotation, and last year they supported them during the Exportable Combat Training Exercise at Fort Hood, Texas. This year, with COVID-19, the level of support required is bigger than ever before.

COVID-19 response planning strategies began well before any Soldier stepped foot in the desert, and that attention to detail has paid off as only a couple of Minnesota’s of the nearly 5,000 Soldiers taking part in the exercise have tested positive for COVID-19.

“For the RSG it’s probably 25 percent increase in labor for us as far as additional stress on the sustainment effort,” said Lt. Col. David Johansson, 347th RSG Operations Officer in Charge.

Minnesota National Guard Soldiers underwent a deliberate process to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19 including screening, testing and isolation in Minnesota prior to departure.

Upon arrival at NTC, the 147th Human Resources Company received all Soldiers at the Reception, Staging, Onward-Movement & Integration location (RSOI). As incoming Soldiers stepped off buses, the 147th HRC directed social distancing and walked them through an individual COVID-19 screening and temperature check before scanning them into the training event. Any Soldier that presented COVID-19 signs or symptoms was immediately either isolated and tested or quarantined.

“Quarantine and isolation are two clear definitions,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Swafford, 34th Infantry Division Preventive Medicine Chief. “A quarantine situation is where an individual that is exposed to a confirmed positive COVID case would be quarantined for 14 days. They don’t have any symptoms, they are asymptomatic, but they’ve had close contact, within that 6-foot bubble for more than 15 minutes. Isolation is where you test positive for COVID, or you are symptomatic and clinically diagnosed with COVID, meaning you have a negative test.”

“As a whole, we run the day-to-day life support coordination for those that are in quarantine as well as those that are in the isolation facility,” said Johansson.

Diligent isolation and quarantine procedures have proved to be effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19. The quarantine and isolation areas are distanced from each other and both are physically separated from the rest of the training population.

“Prior to March 13, we planned to only have a portion of the 204th Medical Company Area Support supporting NTC, and then the decision was made on May 1 to utilize 100 percent of the assets for this effort,” said Johansson. 

“Both for quarantine and isolation, the medical staff checks on them in the morning and night,” said Capt. Jakob Reding, Medical Operations Officer for the 204th.  Sometimes those visits include COVID-19 testing. “Those medics wear their full PPE – N95 facemask, gown and gloves.”

COVID-19 aside, seven companies in the 347th RSG have big jobs to fill as they support the 1/34th ABCT.

Support started in early July when the 114th Transportation Company unloaded over 2,000 pieces of military equipment and vehicles from the Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow Yermo rail yard and transported them to Fort Irwin.

“For support from the RSG, we have the Acquisition Team for the contracting, the 204th takes care of the aid stations and the 147th runs the postal station and RSOI,” said Esquivel. “The Headquarters company is the hub of all the operations.”

As training ‘in the box’ ends for the 1/34th ABCT, the 224thTransportation Company has arrived to move their military equipment and vehicles back to the rail yard and prepare it for transportation back to Camp Ripley, Minnesota.

Once the trains arrive at Camp Ripley, a key role for the 434 Maintenance Company will be receiving the equipment and helping reset it for the 1/34th ABCT’s scheduled deployment in January, 2021.  

The 347th RSG plans to continue diligent COVID-19 daily screening, isolation and quarantine procedures until the last train leaves and the final Soldier departs Fort Irwin in mid-August.

Story by Capt. Melanie Nelson, Minnesota National Guard public affairs