Expeditionary Operations School training endures despite COVID-19 challenges

  • Published
  • By Maj. Tania Bryan
  • U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Public Affairs

As the first waves of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV2, or COVID-19, circled the globe in early 2020, strategies to combat the unknown disease were put into place with the intention of slowing the spread and protecting the world’s population.

Schools were closed, masks were issued, social distancing, contact tracing and quarantine measures were implemented. The COVID-19 pandemic was an unpredictable challenge that led corporations, businesses and even military units to rethink the way they operated.

Telework plans were enacted to lessen the risk of exposure and to keep employees safe. But for some, the mission never stopped and telework wasn’t an option.

“We didn’t stop, even as the pandemic broke out,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Barry McKeown, 421st Combat Training Squadron commander. “The Department of Defense directive stated, the deployment of forces would continue.”

And so, the mission continued.

McKeown and his fellow squadron commanders at the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Operations School are the cornerstone of delivering relevant, credible, and responsive training to ensure the readiness of the force.

The EOS offers a broad spectrum of training, from expeditionary and field skills, to global theater command and control and logistics and intelligence. These training courses prepare Airmen for a plethora of no-fail missions throughout the Department of Defense and federal agencies.

The EOS offers 81 in-resident courses and graduates approximately 8,000 students per year from their main campus at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. and their operating locations at Hurlburt Field, Fla., and Scott Air Force Base, Ill.

The 421st CTS delivers predeployment training for approximately 65% of the Air Forces non-special operations forces, and functions as the formal training unit for contingency response forces, said McKeown. “You can’t telework in the field or the firing range, so our training couldn’t slow down.”

Balancing the precautions to properly mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the teams at the EOS created a pandemic-resilient mission sustainment plan to continue to safely bring students in for training.

“COVID is risk, COVID is a threat, but we took this as an opportunity to become more antifragile,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher MacDonald, 423rd Training Squadron commander.

MacDonald’s squadron is chock full of hand-selected trainers for intense AFSC-specific training that deepens the career field knowledge of our service’s Airmen, but touts the sentiment that their team is “leaders first, instructors second.”

This “leaders first” motto set the squadron up for success as they developed innovative solutions to complex problems. Implementing virtual reality technology additions and instituting virtual classified-level training developed by in-house intelligence experts deepened the tool bag of the EOS, MacDonald said.

“The EOS as a schoolhouse didn’t have a choice but to make changes,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jonathan Anderson, 435th Training Squadron commander. “We used Zoom and Microsoft Teams to bring in guest speakers to help us bridge the gap between Scott and Hurlburt.”

Beyond innovations in training, the commanders and their squadrons are also responsible for the “care and feeding” of their in-residence students. A COVID Policy Action Team was established to monitor changes in guidance and stay abreast of the newly developing rules on quarantine, and eventually testing and vaccination requirements.

“Class sizes were limited to allow for proper social distancing in both the classroom and dormitories, which meant increasing the number of classes offered to get the same number of students through,” Anderson said.

As mask mandates and travel restrictions are lifted, operations continue to buzz along.

“Overall, our operations look normal. We are increasing our class sizes, and returning to how things were,” said Anderson. “Our four mobile training teams are traveling more to provide training and get feedback from around the world, and that feedback from the field will help us improve our training.”