OKLAHOMA CITY – In less than a month, the number of people at Fort Sill in quarantine as a safety precaution to avoid potentially spreading the coronavirus has multiplied from seven Soldiers to 450 military personnel, family members and civilians who work at the Army post, officials said March 25.
Although Fort Sill has had no reported confirmations of COVID-19, “Sooner or later, in the coming weeks, we will probably come in contact with someone who does” have the disease, the post commander, Major General Kenneth Kamper, said in a “town hall” broadcast March 24. The disease is “fluid and dynamic,” he noted.
“We are following guidelines set by the Department of Defense and the Centers for Disease Control on self-quarantine,” Kamper said. Soldiers returning from high-risk areas are “adhering to these procedures,” and others in the community have volunteered to self-quarantine “for numerous reasons,” Kamper said.
Those who are voluntarily quarantining themselves “can do so on or off post in their personal quarters or government-provided quarters,” he said.
The number of individuals in self-quarantine soared because, “We recently had a unit return from South Korea, a high-risk area” identified as a ‘level 3’ country that has a travel health notice, Kamper explained.
Additionally, he said, “Before the stop-movement order was in place, service members and their families were on spring break. When they returned to Fort Sill they were asked to self-quarantine.”
Fort Sill ‘Continuing Its Vital Mission To Train Soldiers’
Fort Sill is “continuing its vital mission to the nation to train United States Soldiers” for operational and combat deployments, the general emphasize.
Consequently, earlier this month 600 Soldiers arrived at the post and, “We sent an artillery unit to South Korea” on March 21, he said.
Approximately 300 Army personnel were scheduled to return soon to Fort Sill from South Korea, Kamper said, but that movement apparently has been interrupted by a dictate from the Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper imposed a stop order on all troop movement overseas for 60 days to attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the military, the Pentagon announced March 25.
The stop movement order will apply to all U.S. forces, civilian personnel and families – including those scheduled to return stateside and those scheduled to deploy – with some exceptions, Esper told Reuters news agency. Approximately 90,000 service members are expected to be impacted by the latest freeze.
“This measure is taken to aid in further prevention of the spread of [COVID-19], to protect U.S. personnel and preserve the operational readiness of our global force,” according to the DOD statement.
There are 227 service members, 81 civilian employees, 67 dependents and 40 contractors who have tested positive for the COVID-19 as of March 25.
To slow the spread in its ranks, the Defense Department raised the health protection condition for all U.S. military installations globally, including Fort Sill, to HPCON Charlie, its second-highest level.
Earlier this month the Pentagon froze most domestic travel until May 11 for service members, civilian employees and their family members. The latest order builds upon those restrictions and will impact “exercises, deployments, redeployments,” among other activities, officials said.
60-Mile Travel Radius; Transfers on Hold
Fort Sill’s Soldiers are forbidden from traveling beyond a 60-mile radius of the post, “through April and probably into May,” Kamper said.
He also said that, for now, trainees who have graduated at Fort Sill are not being sent to other Army posts. Nor are Soldiers whose military occupation specialty will require them to undergo Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at one of numerous AIT schools across the U.S. That training varies from four weeks to a year in duration.
Soldiers who have a military occupation specialty of field artillery or air defense will perform their AIT at Fort Sill. Post officials are “still working the timeframe on how this will be implemented during these challenging times due to COVID-19,” said Jessica Tackaberry, media relations specialist in the Fort Sill Public Affairs Office.
Soldiers whose transfers stateside or overseas have been temporarily frozen “will not just sit in their barracks,” Command Sgt. Major John W. Foley said. “We plan to keep them PT sharp” and performing “repetition of basic Soldier tasks,” he said.
During their time at Fort Sill, “We are taking necessary precautions to protect and maintain the readiness and health of our force,” General Kamper said. “The safety and health of our soldiers and entire community is a top priority.”
Fort Sill Commanders ‘Tilt Toward Precaution’
That’s one reason why so much emphasis is placed on hand-washing, “social distancing” of at least 6 feet of separation between people whenever possible, and precautionary quarantine if circumstances warrant, Foley said.
Drill sergeants are maintaining a 6-foot distance from basic trainees during their nine weeks of training, he said. Spacing is being enforced on buses and crowding in the dining hall is being addressed, Kamper said.
The number of trainees who are coming to Fort Sill “is being modified due to COVID-19,” the general said. Trainees are being screened upon arrival “to protect and mitigate any potential spread” of the disease, Kamper said.
Class sizes at the post’s child development centers have been reduced “to about half the normal, typical size,” and “virtual” religious worship services – performed at the post but viewed over the internet rather than witnessed in person – are being considered, Kamper said.
Access of non-military individuals to Fort Sill is not being limited “at this point,” the general added.
But, he said there are no immediate plans to lift the suspension of guest attendance at graduation ceremonies, which was imposed on March 16 “to prevent any potential spread of COVID-19 to either service members, Department of the Army civilians, families, and the entire Lawton-Fort Sill community,” the post announced.
Nevertheless, graduations will continue and select graduations will be live-streamed on Army on-line platforms, “including our official Facebook page - US Army Fort Sill, the 434thField Artillery Brigade (Basic Combat Training), 428th Field Artillery Brigade, and 30th Air Defense Artillery Brigade sites accordingly.” Units will publish schedules for live-streaming through normal communication channels.
Fort Sill’s commanders “tilt toward precaution,” Kamper said.