For participants at Northern Strike 20, COVID-19 risk mitigation is top priority

Lt. Col. Lori Bowers, a nurse from the 110th Medical Group, prepares to administer a COVID-19 test at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Mich., July 19, 2020, during the training exercise Northern Strike. Geared to build readiness and maintain proficiency in air, sea, and ground maneuvers, Northern Strike is an annual, National Guard Bureau-sponsored exercise that draws in units from all active-duty and reserve branches so they can conduct training missions and joint fires integration in a decisive-action environment.(U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Jarvis)

Story By Staff Sgt. Brian Jarvis

110th Wing Public Affairs

ALPENA, Mich. — The annual training exercise Northern Strike kicked off this week in northern Michigan, prioritizing safety and caution even more so than past years in light of COVID-19. The mantra is simple: “protect our participants, protect our communities, and protect our mission.”

As the National Guard Bureau’s premier annual joint component readiness event featuring realistic combat scenarios across air, sea and ground, Northern Strike usually brings in 6,000 to 7,000 participants from every U.S. active-duty and reserve branch. This year, however, the number of participants will comprise a fraction of that, spread between the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center (CRTC), Camp Grayling Maneuver Training Center, and nearby ranges and training grounds.

Mr. Matt Trumble, Northern Strike Program Manager, said the exercise remains a unique opportunity for different military branches to work together in a synchronized environment.

“We’re going to turn out a training product that puts troops in the field and airplanes in the sky, and simulate things that are supposed to be real,” Trumble said. “We believe that for those who did come here, the simulations we devised with the help of the Michigan National Guard are better than the training they would have access to back home.”

Chief Master Sgt. Jerome Torres, Airfield Manager for the CRTC, noted that Northern Strike operations are relying heavily on electric communication to reduce person-to-person contact, such as increased phone calls and emails to verify runway use, identify potential hazards, and check that flight plans are received.

“These precautions are in place to ensure that our guests realize that we are taking this pandemic seriously, and we are taking every precaution we can to ensure their safety and ours,” Torres said.

Senior Master Sgt. Jeremy Wohlford, CRTC Fire Chief, said that the exercise offers many visiting firefighters a chance to complete required training and obtain between 40 to 50 continuing education credits in fire protection, many of which are considered mission-critical. While wearing a mask isn’t a big deal for firefighters accustomed to working in full gear on the fireground, unlike other professions they can’t simply go home after business hours and take the mask off.

“It’s important that we still do Northern Strike, it’s an important exercise, and we have to keep fighting the fight,” Wolhford said. “We’ll make the best of it, make it as real as we can and provide the best training that we can.”

Staff Sgt. Tim Frasier, Alpena CRTC Public Health Manager, said that fewer service members on-base reduces overall risk of contracting the virus, and for those who are participating at the CRTC and Camp Grayling, the Michigan National Guard has worked in partnership with public health officials to develop a comprehensive plan that allows Northern Strike to continue during the COVID-19 pandemic, while safeguarding participants and local communities.

“We have plans in place for handling various scenarios, and we’re doing everything that we can to mitigate risk. Every exercise comes with some degree of risk, but this year is a different kind of risk, a new kind of risk. The Alpena community should know that we are taking every precaution available to ensure a safe training environment. We work hard to have a good relationship with our community and we are all members of that community. We work here, play here, and anything that affects the community also affects us.”

Participants in Northern Strike 2020 are required to wear cloth face coverings and maintain social distance. In addition, a “cocooning” plan was developed to cluster service members in small teams to work alongside each other while keeping interaction to a minimum.

COVID-19 testing will be available as needed during the exercise. If a service member does test positive, they will be directed to coordinate further care with military medical providers, their commander, and the local public health department.

“From my side of the house, as long as everyone follows state and local policies, the risk is relatively the same as it would be for any full-time person here at the CRTC,” said Frasier, who will be conducting daily checks to ensure compliance, as well as collecting daily temperature logs and health questionnaires.

“All of these procedures decrease the chance for infection. We still encourage exercise for physical health, such as jogging solo around base, but nothing that puts people in harm’s way,” Frasier added. “When we’re going into a situation like this, it’s important for everybody to understand that it is everyone’s responsibility to mitigate risk.”

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