Skye Duncan, RES ‘17
My two-year appointment as the Garrison/Base Commander of Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) in Washington state is best described as part mayor and part city manager. I don’t command the forces on base; I run the city. Now, like many other cities in the world, we are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. Washington state was one of the first and hardest hit locations in the U.S., and one of the first to see the possible apex of the curve. We learned a lot from South Korea and we are now sharing lessons learned with other bases and cities around the globe. How we deal with it – balancing mission readiness and caring for people – is all-consuming right now, but I want to take a few minutes to share my thoughts and what we’ve changed. Each day we work to find ways to best provide services to the 40,000+ service members and the 110,000+ additional people on base every day (Families, DoD Civilians, contractors, retirees, visitors). About 30,000 people live on base and the rest transit to and from JBLM through our gates. Our city is one amongst 15 in the immediate area. We all depend on each other and are looking for how to best care for our people.
First, let me explain how I generally look at things through the COVID-19 lens. On JBLM, our servicemembers must be ready to deploy at any time to defend our nation. We have all four services on JBLM, but the majority are Army and Air Force. I am able to provide capabilities to these forces because I have amazing people working with me daily on the task of running this medium sized city. Below are some of the actions we’ve taken.
People need Food: We have commissaries (grocery stores), food courts, restaurants, take-outs, food trucks, and dining facilities (warrior restaurants) all across base. We manage them each independently but they are all essential to our mission. We are enforcing social distancing, hand washing, and screening questionnaires in front of these facilities. We intend to keep them all open, if only take-out, and with base-wide dedicated cleaning teams to surge if a contact trace shows that someone who tested positive visited that location.
People need Shelter: We have over 5,000 homes and 10,000 barracks/dorm rooms on base as well as various hotels and temporary quarters. We must keep them safe and open, so we dedicated a portion of them as quarantine and isolation facilities: quarantine for those possibly exposed and isolation for the sick. We have a large population of people returning from overseas and people who may have been exposed either on or off base. Separating them quickly and efficiently protects them (they’re monitored) and others (since they’re separated out until they are proven healthy for 14 days). Additionally, we have some people who need to be ready to deploy so quickly that we have to keep them separate so they can never be exposed, thus more dedicated space. Keeping updated and accurate lists of addresses of those quarantined or isolated is a must so that when maintenance workers or food deliverers knock on the door, they know what to expect and they need to be in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
People need Community and Communication: This has proven to be the most challenging category to address and try to stay ahead of. We’ve had to remove many of our community amenities. We’ve closed theaters, entertainment venues, our six schools, all our chapels, barber shops, nearly every day care center, museums, community centers, and of course nearly every scheduled gathering. We love our fitness, so closing gyms and restricting Physical Training (PT) formations really hit the community hard. We have to “over communicate” every change. We use virtual meetings and information exchanges. We have dedicated social media platforms and web sites. We host virtual live events frequently and answer questions. The situation is still changing fast enough that even this might not be enough. Our chaplains have put nearly every service for every faith group on-line, we’ve reinforced our resilience resources and counseling capabilities, nearly tripled our telework options, and stood up an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to manage the flood of information. We do all of this so that we can be a calm in the storm – enabling society and healthcare professionals to flatten the COVID curve. It is vitally important to be transparent, share information, and quickly implement lessons learned from others.
Six weeks into COVID-19 here in Washington State came news of South Korea possibly hitting another curve after we thought they’d peaked. We’re learning, but we have much to learn. We’re communicating well, but we have more communicating to do. Hence, the four dualities of COVID times:
First, Duality in Mission Essential. Who is Mission Essential and who isn’t? Some stay home; that is their job and their duty. Some pick up the pace and serve even more than prior to the crisis. You’ve seen examples of both in your neighborhood — those who are still working, just not at work – and those who are feverishly doing the same thing they were before, just faster (grocery and home improvement stores, garbagemen, and medical professionals).
Second, Duality in COVID fatigue. We are all just a little tired of fighting it. We’ve accepted that it’s now part of life to stay in our circle and to not violate others’ circles. We no longer think it’s weird to wear a facemask, and that rule only came out a few weeks ago! It’s OK to not fight it and accept the new normal…but it’s NOT OK to stop fighting complacency. We must stay aware that the threat isn’t reduced just because we FEEL LIKE it’s reduced. Rest while in your home, but don’t fatigue of the overall fight.
Third, Duality in how we approach each day. Sometimes we’re thankful for the slower pace, for more time with family, for our health, for our neighbors. Sometimes we’re dissatisfied with the response from leaders, with the person who coughed as they passed us, with shutting down (or not shutting down), our pet project (or our pet peeve).
Finally, Duality in level of responsibility. Some have great responsibility to lead or administer life-sustaining medical care and some may have to take a back seat temporarily. Some exclaim that each person must take responsibility for their actions and look out for others before themselves. Some exclaim that leaders or businesses must give crystal clear guidance that says “here’s how it is so that we can ensure you look out for others before yourselves”. As with many COVID dualities, we doubtless need a bit of both.
Each of us experiences COVID differently depending on our roles and location. If you’re quarantined because of it, a healthcare worker helping in the midst of it, or a small business service industry trying to endure it, you have time for nothing but survival. If you’re at home with your family, you may be absolutely making the most of it, or…you may be worried that your job could disappear. Every city has people in all these categories.
Thus, again, the need for city leaders to consistently communicate, over and over again, but iteratively informed — with newest data and within current circumstances — locally and nationally and internationally learnt. Communicate in multiple forums (revolving) and with all new learning included (evolving). We, as relational people, receive messages at different times and in different ways. In Garrison/City leadership, we’re in the people business and COVID-19 is hard, but we are prepared to adjust with the situation. For now, how well we “social distance” will be the biggest determiner of success. We know our great city will make it through.
COL Skye D. Duncan
Resident Class of 2017
Garrison Commander, Joint Base Lewis-McChord