The Army Reserves COVID Problem

There is no doubt that the current pandemic has changed the lives of everyone in the United States. The military is a unique cross-section of the workforce that must find a way to simultaneously continue to train to answer our nation’s call and protect the force that will be called. Diving further, the Army Reserve is a particularly unique organization with its own set of challenges when it comes to the balance of risk to mission and risk to force that has been preached by senior Army Reserve leaders since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s easy to look at the active component and say that war cannot be fought remotely; therefore we must continue training and assume some risk to the force so that we are prepared for the unexpected.

The Army Reserve is not that type of organization. The formation is spread out, geographically, all over the United States and they congregate periodically two days a month to accomplish the same mission as the regular Army. There is no reason to try to be the active component and risk the health and well-being of the formation for a drill weekend that will accomplish little to anything in the form of readiness metrics.

Everyone wants that sense of normalcy again in their lives. Months under restrictive orders imposed by states and municipalities have far-reaching effects on mental health and the welfare of families. The Army Reserve has been operating under a concept of Soldier Virtual Battle Assemblies to protect the force and full-time personnel maintaining continuity of the unit during this period. The majority of the Soldiers in Army Reserve units sacrifice time away from the families and loved ones on weekends and brief stints throughout the year all because they have a sense of sacrifice and service to the country. The virtual battle assembly allowed the Soldier to meet their Army requirement and not be away from their families for long weekends. However, some things commands do show a disregard from senior leaders for the welfare of their Soldiers and their families and the communities in which they live. In the midst of a wave of rising COVID cases across the country, these issues come to light because if one unit is operating in this manner then undoubtedly there are others.

When COVID began to spread throughout the country most units in the Army Reserve implemented a very liberal telework policy and went down to about a 20%-30% total staffing in buildings to maintain operations. There was a learning curve for how to manage and lead in a telework environment and there was uncertainty to how long this was going to last. Around mid-May (so roughly 2 months later) some commands implemented plans to bring back all full-time staff by the beginning of July. The plan was briefed as a phased approach before any of the Readiness Divisions (who own the buildings) published any guidance regarding how many Soldiers/civilians could be in the building at a time. The reality of the situation was one day there was minimal physical manning of the building and the next everyone, minus a few exceptions, was back to work physically. Mitigation efforts such as screening the front door of the building or calculating the appropriate square footage per Soldier were non-existent. Excuses from senior leaders echoed throughout the formation as excuses, such as, “They didn’t provide us the tools (ie. thermometers and questionnaires).”

Other phrases like, “People will do the right thing and if they don’t feel well they won’t show up” also permeated the rhetoric of leaders. Unfortunately, Soldiers and civilian employees showed up to work feeling bad in one form or another and then needed compassionate leaders to order them to go home, get a test, and wait for the results. Then there is the issue of what to do with those who had contact with a presumed positive individual. Phrases like “presumed negative until proven positive” could be heard to keep positive physical accountability. Contact with someone COVID positive or presumed COVID positive meant you wait until you show symptoms before taking any action. You continue to come to work and interact with everyone in the building and if you end up getting sick well, hopefully, no one else does because they are going to be at work until they are symptomatic. This particular tactic, technique, and procedure created a situation where one in eight full-time staff have had COVID in one particular unit. This is double the rate of the American public.

Leadership is a human affair. The lack of human to human communication in-person puts the genuine leader in a state of distress. The ability to talk face-to-face with the Soldier reveals more than any phone conversation, Facetime call, or email ever could. However, the dramatic rise of cases and hospitalizations across the country should raise the eyebrows of any leader considering an in-person drill weekend to do administrative work.There are hundreds upon hundreds of pages of guidance and directives for how to conduct operations and training in the COVID environment. Commands were forced to distill only the most important facets of these orders and leave it to commanders to command. This aligns perfectly with the Mission Command Philosophy. The only problem is that a situation like COVID does not require mission command.

Commanders at lower levels are hesitant to make these extremely tough choices because they do not want to jeopardize their young budding careers. Senior Leaders need to be more controlling in this environment or be very clear in their left and right parameters. Then there is the issue of ignoring published guidance because it does not fit the narrative of getting back to normal. Ignoring conditions based assessments, purposely skirting around the exemptions for travel to get Soldiers where they want Soldiers to be, and purposely ignoring state and county recommendations with the statement “we are a federal entity so it does not apply to us” are all too common happenings that allow commands to get their way. These are reckless actions that pose a paradox that was true when toxic leadership was the big buzzword.

No one wants to see anyone get sick or possibly die from this disease. Does having a slew of Soldiers get sick at one time linked to one training event that could have been avoided what is needed to out these reckless leaders. The idea of bringing Soldiers in because you have not seen them in a few months and you want to get back to normal shows a complete inability to creatively think and lead your formation. The ability to be flexible and adaptable to the operational environment is the key to maintaining your most important pacing item, the Soldier.

Soldiers want to get back to training. They want to see their battle buddies. They want hard realistic training. They do not want leaders who are not taking their concerns to heart. They deserve leaders who are compassionate and will maintain liberal rescheduled training opportunities. They need leaders who understand that their civilian employer will not let them come back to work for 14-days if they leave the state for a weekend for their Army commitment. They deserve leaders who take the time to ensure that the safety of the force is more important than regaining a sense of normalcy in a world that will never be the same and driving administrative metrics for the sake of evaluations.

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