INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey --
Members of Incirlik AB are learning to fight a different kind of adversary: the Coronavirus. Also known as COVID-19, this invisible enemy has been throwing societies around the world into disarray while claiming the lives of many.
Military and civilian officials at the 39th Air Base Wing are not taking any chances, and have taken strict measures to ensure the health and well-being of their personnel.
“The situation is rapidly evolving and we are posturing the 39th ABW to respond in accordance with Department of Defense, Major Command and Turkish policies,” said Lt. Col. Tyler Berge, chief of safety for the wing. “Our biggest push has been to implement social distancing across the wing and help the medical clinic posture to an acute care model so they can provide 24/7 support.”
Berge leads the Operational Planning Team, which is a cross-functional group of subject-matter experts from across the wing who are tasked to analyze the COVID-19 situation. The team develops plans, policy and guidance, while also serving as a single point of contact for leadership questions.
“We are going to see our normal ways of life change, but we’ve already seen some great innovation in how Airmen deal with these changes,” Berge said. “I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it, but I don’t doubt our Airmen will continue to be resilient and find ways to cope with the changes.”
Airmen and U.S. civilians assigned to Incirlik are experiencing many interruptions to their daily lives because of the virus. The Secretary of Defense issued a stop-movement order, halting all non-essential travel within the DOD. This means permanent changes of station, temporary duty assignments and leave have been postponed or canceled.
Meanwhile, on the installation, numerous facilities have either diminished their operations or shut down entirely, in an effort to encourage social distancing. Among the services which closed are the gyms, the Airman Ministry Center, the library, movie theater, bowling alley, community center and pool. The Base Exchange, dining facility and wing-sponsored restaurants remain open, but have restricted their dining services to takeout or delivery.
Berge acknowledged these disruptions to daily life are inconvenient, but expressed they were necessary to curb the potential spread of the Coronavirus.
“The team is here to make sure we have a consolidated response so we can maintain the mission, protect resources and enable leaders to take care of their Airmen,” he said. “We know we will have hiccups along the way, but overall the team’s work will help mitigate the risk of the Coronavirus and protect our Airmen. We have a lot of smart people working on the problem and it feels good that we can help the wing posture for a long term response.”
At the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 is the 39th Medical Group. The group has altered its operations, to focus on acute care cases.
“Acute care implies that we are available to care for urgent needs and new conditions that result in a need for care in the short term,” Col. Keegan Lyons, 39th MDG commander, explained. “That would include the usual things like ankle sprains, lacerations, and upper respiratory conditions such as COVID-19. We are moving away from a face-to-face care model to limit exposure to the population of potentially sick individuals.”
Lyons added that routine appointments such as preventative health assessments and annual dental exams have been delayed. He encouraged Airmen to utilize the Tricare Online Secure Messaging system, saying his group can provide prescriptions for medication refills and answer many medical concerns through this avenue.
The medical group commander listed precautions Airmen should take to protect themselves against the Coronavirus.
“There is no treatment nor currently available vaccine for COVID-19,” he said. “The best means of protection remains hand hygiene, social distancing, proper nutrition, rest and frequent cleaning of public or shared items such as door handles.”
Lyons also addressed the issue of testing for COVID-19, saying the 39th MDG is pursuing the ability to conduct tests locally.
“Current testing is being performed at several bases worldwide,” he explained. “We are dependent upon shipping to designated locations. Testing is not advised, nor will be performed, for members that do not have symptoms, signs, and a significant exposure history.”
While the medical group at Incirlik continues to pursue ways to localize their COVID-19 testing, its personnel are already hard at work trying to combat the rapid spread of the virus.
“Overall, our mission is preserving the health of the force,” said Maj. Nancy Lester, 39th Medical Operations Support Squadron public health officer. “We screen everyone coming in or out to ensure we keep potentially sick and contagious people separated from other healthy individuals. Allowing potentially contagious people inside our clinic poses a risk for both patients and medical staff.”
Lester’s team also makes efforts to educate the community on steps to take in order to avoid contamination. Additionally, they provide recommendations for modified public activities and guidelines on social distancing precautions.
Everywhere at Incirlik, U.S. personnel have been ordered to maintain a six-foot distance from each other, and to limit social gatherings and in-person meetings. Common greetings such as handshakes and hugs have also been discouraged, in accordance with Center for Disease Control guidance. Units across the 39th ABW have moved into minimal-manning operations, with many personnel teleworking.
Lester clarified that social distancing does not equate to social isolation, saying there are ways to continue social interaction from a safe distance. In fact, it is extremely important for friends and colleagues to provide emotional support in this current crisis, she added.
“This crisis has real effects,” Lester said. “People around the world are affected physically, mentally, and economically. However, all levels of military and community leadership are fully engaged and people are staying connected so that we come through this together, ready to continue the mission. To combat apathy and carelessness, I emphasize that humans are the best thing, the most valuable asset we have – and we are far better together.”
To help Airmen ward off feelings of social isolation, 39th Force Support Squadron is working to move the base’s recreational services to the digital realm. Among these are online portal gaming, virtual painting lessons and guided workouts.
While the facilities may be closed, the squadron remains committed to supporting the U.S. and allied troops on base.
“A majority of our morale, welfare and recreation services are moving to online platforms as we try to find different methods to continue to provide entertainment and resilience activities to the installation,” said Maj. Zachariah Gonyea, 39th FSS operations officer. “Our fitness center team is working to develop a daily or weekly workout challenge, and our community services team is looking at a host of different online games that we can either host on our Facebook page, or link Incirlik Airmen through apps or other online mediums.”
Gonyea encouraged Airmen to visit the “39 FSS Happenings” and “Incirlik Air Base Fitness Center” Facebook pages, saying these are the avenues through which his squadron advertises current and future events.
“We share a lot of the same concerns that people have with the facilities closing,” Gonyea said. “The 39th FSS is as invested in keeping our facilities open and providing as many services as possible as everyone else here is. If anyone has any ideas for services that they would like to see, we are open to hearing them … we are here for you!”
Berge praised his team for their non-stop efforts in tackling the Coronavirus crisis, and thanked the Incirlik community for their patience despite their lives being thrown out of orbit. He also encouraged the community to remain calm, emphasizing the importance of remaining connected in the midst of turmoil.
“The next couple of weeks are going to be a challenge, but it is extremely important you keep communicating,” Berge said. “If you have a question, talk with your leadership or submit it through the Commander’s Action Line. Take care of yourselves and your fellow Airmen. Spend time talking with your family and friends back home and take time to develop yourselves—find new activities and stay connected.”