GULFPORT COMBAT READINESS TRAINING CENTER, Miss. (AFNS) --
In a year where change became the new normal, deployment preparation has had to adapt and overcome the challenges that the coronavirus presented.
With preventing the spread of COVID-19 being a top priority, Headquarters Air Force had to develop a new process to ensure the safety of the service members before deployment into the U.S. Central, Africa and European Commands’ areas of responsibility.
“Back in July, HAF reached out to us to see if we could assist with ROM (restriction of movement) operations,” said Col. Berry L. McCormick, Gulfport Combat Readiness Training Center commander. “While I explained that we have the facilities, we don’t have the full-time staffing for operations, so they would have to provide the manpower to handle the operations side.”
The reason for setting up these ROM operations is to reduce risk to both the force and mission. With deploying personnel traveling into AORs worldwide, service members must comply with specified Center for Disease Control and Prevention Department of Defense ROM guidance before departure, which mitigates the threat of introducing COVID-19 into the assigned AOR.
As the first group of deployers grew closer to arriving at the Gulfport CRTC, McCormick reached out to the 403rd Wing for assistance.
Lt. Col. Reginald Trujillo, 403rd Mission Support Group commander, who arrived in August 2020 answered that call.
“He (McCormick) called, introduced himself and explained what was going on and asked if the 403rd could help, at least initially,” Trujillo said. “We agreed to help, which began the conversation between us, the CRTC and HAF. This opportunity was going to test our ability to provide expeditionary combat support by providing food services, aerial port, law enforcement and personnel support for contingency operations. However, what made this opportunity special was instead of being in another AOR, we were going to be 20 minutes down the road from Keesler (AFB).”
After receiving a deployment-manning document, Trujillo sent the information out to the units within the wing and immediately began receiving volunteers from across the MSG, operations group, maintenance group and the aeromedical staging squadron.
The command staff for the Gulfport CRTC ROM Operation, known as Camp Gulfport, consists of both Guard and Reserve members, with three out of four of the members from the 403rd Wing: the commander is from operations group, the operations officer and superintendent are from the MSG, and the first sergeant, Master Sgt. Rodgrick Anderson, is from the Air National Guard’s 186th Air Refueling Wing.
“We certainly couldn’t have done this without the 403rd,” McCormick said. “Approximately 40% of the personnel running this ROM operation is from the 403rd Wing, with the remaining personnel coming from many Mississippi Air National Guard units, as well as volunteers from guard units across multiple states.”
What exactly did these volunteers of reservists and guard members sign up to do?
Well, to begin with, they did not know what a ROM was or how they were going to make it work; but they were going in there with the sole purpose of making it happen and they have.
Walking in the door at Camp Gulfport, Lt. Col. Dena Williams, commander and a 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron pilot, and Chief Master Sgt. David Paladino, 403rd Force Support Squadron superintendent, had to start from the ground up setting up and establishing the ROM rules of engagement before the first group of deployers arrived about a week later.
“We are learning as we go,” Williams said. “I had to learn first off what a ROM was, so thanks to Chief (Master Sgt.) Paladino who reached out to other ROMs and found out what we needed to know. We are taking that information and running with it.”
A ROM is a restriction of movement. It is not a quarantine. This is for someone who has not been in contact with a person who has symptoms of COVID-19 and the ROM is meant to keep them symptom-free. Their health is monitored and routinely checked to ensure they remain symptom and COVID-19 free before being allowed to deploy. They have certain movement guidelines that they are required to follow, such as time limits in certain areas, and they are required to wear masks at all times.
On active-duty bases, these operations are very basic. Once a deployer shows up and is placed in restriction-of-movement status, the deployer is assigned a room, allowed one hour outside for workout time, and has their meals delivered to them by someone from the base who is assigned the additional-duty task of taking care of the personnel until they leave.
“Most of the ROMs are 14 to 21 days long, the deployers are given a room and they stay there for 23 hours a day. Their food is dropped off and they get one hour outside a day,” Williams said.
However, Camp Gulfport is on a National Guard CRTC base, which is a minimally-staffed base and is usually reserved for training situations, but 2020 left a lot of time slots open due to COVID-19 cancellations.
“The CRTC has everything we need physically; rooms, a track for outdoor exercise, a DFAC (dining facility), even a shoppette,” Williams said, “except full-time staff. Luckily, between the volunteers from the Air National Guard units and the 403rd Wing, we were able to get the manpower we needed to run everything.”
And run everything they do.
They have food runners, mail runners, store runners, drivers and even baggage handlers when it comes time to head out the door. They are there to make sure the deployers have what they need when they need it.
As with any first group, there is a learning curve and this was no different.
“Because we have the resources, we are running our ROM a little differently. We are letting them out a little longer, giving them three hours a day during daylight hours, especially when we have nice weather. We have Security Forces on staff keeping an eye on them,” Williams said.
This will continue as long as they do not break the rules or restrictions that they are given.
Another difference is that Camp Gulfport is operating the DFAC; staffing it and cooking three meals a day with both Guard and Reservists preparing the food.
The deployers are given the rules and expected to follow those rules. If they fail to follow the rules, they may be sent back to their home station, which makes them undeployable and once they return home they may be punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“We have to certify that the group followed all protocols before they can even load their baggage on the plane,” Williams said. “We even follow the protocols of the AOR that they are headed to if that area is more stringent.”
And for the first group, the ROM that signed off was a success. For the Camp Gulfport staff, it was a learning experience.
Staff Sgt. Cody Owen and Senior Airman Arbaneze Johnson, bothvmembers of the Mississippi’s ANG’s 255th Air Control Squadron, worked alongside Senior Airman Marcus Wilson, 403rd Logistics Readiness Squadron member, loading bags into a truck as the first group of deployers got ready to leave after their ROM was finished.
Even though this isn’t their regular military duty and they are helping by transporting bags, they all agreed that working together has been fun. Getting to know each other, networking and having active-duty Airmen rely on them in this aspect has increased the respect level for the Guard and Reserve because for the ROM group to get overseas, these Guard and Reservists have to do their job stateside.
“It is a testament to the can-do attitude of Guardsmen and Reservists to volunteer in a support role, to help the war fighter on the other end,” McCormick said. “Because at the end of the day, this is not glamorous. This is getting the combatant commander overseas the manpower required that they need in order to rotate the manpower in and out. It isn’t glamorous, but it is very important.”