I-Team: Pandemic changes how military trains

WASHINGTON, D.C — A News Center 7 investigation examining U.S. Army training techniques revealed system changes brought on by the pandemic, the I-team’s Blair Miller reported after gaining extraordinary Blackhawk helicopter access -- flying with these units over the nation’s Capital.

“We stand ready to answer the nation’s call,” Lt. Col. Ryan Forshee, who leads the Ft. Belvoir’s Blackhawk helicopter unit, located outside Washington, D.C., told the I-Team.

“We evacuate senior government officials from a place that may not be conducive to do their jobs to a place that is,” Lt. Col. Forshee said.

Flying the Blackhawk helicopters requires constant training in the seat of these aircraft. Current pilots must have 100 hours of flight time per year.

Those requirements have continued during the last year, despite the pandemic and social distancing limitations.

Ft. Belvoir crews took the I-team along to see how they train, showing how they pull off banking maneuvers along the edges of Washington, D.C, just 200 feet above the Potomac River.

1st Lt. Kazimira Zaunbrecher joined this unit last year, two days after the pandemic started.

“It was definitely different than what I expected going into my first unit, and it had a lot of challenges,” 1st Lt. Zaunbrecher said.

She came in at a time when this U.S. Army unit of 400 soldiers abruptly changed training.

“We created what were essentially pods, meaning that if you and I were a flight crew, we would be assigned and we would just fly together for the next four to six weeks,” Lt. Col. Forshee said of the great social distancing precautions taken.

Lt. Col. Forshee credited his unit’s safety measures for no COVID-19 diagnoses since the pandemic started.

In other parts of the military, however, retired Marine Corps Col. Mark Cancian, who works for military think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies, said there are some readiness questions, focusing on high level training.

“We know that there has been some deterioration of skills and services and not very specific about what that might have been but it’s worth investigating,” Cancian said.

Just like some businesses, the pandemic has lead the military to make changes, mostly in how they communicate, which could be in place long after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

At Ft. Belvoir, they continue to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and most soldiers have already been vaccinated.