Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home to the iconic 101st Airborne Division, is typically a hub of training activity, from formation runs to marches and group physical training sessions.
But that was all before the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to business as usual, even as the Army strives to keep its soldiers ready for the fight.. The 101st Airborne and other Campbell units have adopted a rigid lifestyle of social-distancing practices that have drastically altered life at the home of the hard-charging Screaming Eagles.
"We are not doing formations; soldiers are doing [fitness training] every day, but it's kind of as a buddy-team," Maj. Gen. Brian Winski, commander of the 101st Airborne Division and Fort Campbell, told Military.com in a Wednesday morning interview. "No field training, ranges or anything of that nature, and we anticipate that will be the case for at least the next two to three weeks."
As cases spike across the military and in the general population, Fort Campbell has just one soldier who has tested positive for the disease, officials said. That’s despite weeks of strict measures to isolate troops from the deadly virus.
Post officials did not release the soldier's identity or unit, but said the individual is currently isolated at their off-post residence.
"Considering our population and the law of averages, we should at this point have a much higher number," Winski said. At the time he spoke, there were only three cases of COVID-19 there -- an Army retiree and two family members who live off-post. He noted that he does expect the number of cases to grow.
"The preponderance of our formations are young, vital, strong soldiers. I suspect a fair amount have it now but just simply [are] not exhibiting symptoms; their bodies will fight it and they will be done with it," he added. "Every model that you see shows that containing it is the key to keep the numbers at a manageable level for the health care system to be able to surge on those that really need it."
Elsewhere on base, signs of strict preventative measures are everywhere.
The dining areas are closed, but the chow halls prepare grab-and-go meals for troops.
"The soldiers maintain dispersion ... they grab their chow, and they are generally eating it outside on picnic tables or bring it back to their room," Winski said.
For soldiers in the barracks, the shoppettes are still open, as well as the post exchange and commissary, but they enforce strict social distancing, he added.
All bars in Tennessee and Kentucky are closed, as well as those on post.
Soldiers are allowed to go off-post within a 50-mile radius, Winski said.
"We intentionally excluded Nashville because we want them to stay out of the major metropolitan areas ... but soldiers are allowed to go into town if they want to get chow or essential things -- that is permissible," he said. "But what is not permissible, and leaders and on post we are checking for, are little backyard barbeques and things of that nature. Any clustering of people is dispersed immediately."
For most soldiers, their "place of duty is generally in their barracks or in their quarters," Winski said, describing how units are taking advantage of online resources to reinforce basic soldier skills.
"These days, for all soldier fundamental tasks, there are many videos for the execution of that task to make sure it's done exactly right," he said. "In a rifle squad, they will tell the soldiers, 'Hey, focus on weapons tasks today; hey, watch these ... on load, unload, reduce a stoppage on a machine gun.'"
Winski said he is concerned about readiness slipping but stressed that units are trying to counter this by focusing on high levels of physical fitness readiness.
"In a lot of ways, [focusing] soldiers on these fundamental tasks and doing some leader training will help when we do resume training," he said. "But if this obviously continues for weeks and weeks and weeks into months and months, there is going to be some training atrophy, but we will be able to get that back quickly. I don't see a significant decline, but there will be a natural decline the longer this thing goes."
Fort Campbell leaders are assessing conditions every day, but it's unlikely that life will return to its pre-COVID-19 state anytime soon.
"We are trying to keep [soldiers] engaged with PT, with the training that we can do -- just some leader development things, some readings to try to get them as engaged as possible, knowing that potentially this is going to be a long time cooped up in the barracks," Winski said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.