ATLANTA — For the nation's military, it will be a holiday travel season like no other.
As the pandemic rages across the country, troops from Georgia’s Fort Gordon and Fort Benning are preparing to deploy this week from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for holiday leave that will take them across the country.
For the military, this is a complicated deployment.
With COVID-19 upending air travel across America, moving 10,000 troops in and out of Hartsfield-Jackson in a two-day period from two major Army installations has presented challenges not faced before.
Col. Dawson Plummer commands the Armored Brigade at Fort Benning.
“In this case, here at Fort Benning, I would say it's significantly different because of the amount of people we have going out, and we are in pandemic,” he said.
And Lt. Col. Detrick Ousby, who commands the Signal Battalion at Fort Gordon, agrees.
“I've served in the Signal Battalion before and this is my fourth-holiday block leave," he said. "I can only tell you that executing it now is like no other.”
And for Lt. Col. Justin Horgan, commander of Army Cyber School Training at Fort Gordon, it’s taken months of planning to make this deployment go off without a hitch.
“We have worked with the Atlanta airport for the past two months both on their operations side of the house and with the airlines; and with the USO," he said. "And their cooperation has been excellent as what we have done, historically every Christmas now, is being adapted to the COVID environment.”
Unlike civilian passengers moving about in the airport complex, the departing troops will be strictly monitored.
"A battalion executive officer will run that operation and two of my drill sergeants will be there ensuring a good order of discipline, so they know where to go. It’s a focus on safety,” Lt. Col. Horgan said.
And as Col. Plummer added, the soldiers prepared to leave Ft. Benning, these service members will be taking many precautions.
“They will be wearing their masks and they still be standing in uniform so they will be easily identified and they've already been trained on how to socially distance and they have been trained in the proper CDC mitigation measures,” he said.
And, as the troops enter the Delta Air Lines baggage area in the south terminal and start their journey, they will be met by teams of USO volunteers.
Mary Lou Austin, USO Atlanta president, said her team has been working for weeks getting ready for this deployment.
“Volunteers, in the early dawn hours of Tuesday and Friday, will be handing out snack packs, Christmas stockings and refreshments, Pop-Tarts and candy,” she said.
A long-time USO volunteer, Scarlett Williams was enthusiastically looking forward to the arriving troops.
“I will definitely be out there," she said. "We are going to be passing out care packages. It’s exciting. It’s an honor for me to go out there and serve our military personnel."
And, when the troops return from their holiday leave, those headed to Fort Benning will be screened at the airport and those who test positive will be isolated at the base.
Troops headed to Fort Gordon will also be screened but will then remain in quarantine at the base for 14 days and study virtually in their barracks.
If you plan to fly out of Hartsfield-Jackson this week and you see our departing troops, follow COVID protocols but take a moment and thank them for their important service. That one line goes a long way.