In late February, Brig. Gen. Pete Fesler prepared about 130 troops under his command to mobilize for a new mission, one that would take them away from their families and involve extensive precautions to keep service members safe.
Tapping his experience from deployments in Asia and the Middle East, the former fighter pilot made plans for adapting the unit’s sensitive mission to new hazards over an unknown period of time, as authorities scrambled to anticipate the moves of an unpredictable adversary.
The difference from his previous assignments: At the end of the day, instead of being halfway around the world, Fesler can look out from the base where he’s lodging and see the neighborhood where his wife and kids are hunkered down during the coronavirus pandemic.
The general is a senior commander at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he heads a team that is attempting to sequester itself to ensure that covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, can’t cripple NORAD’s command center, responsible for preventing the United States from coming under attack from foreign missiles or other aerial threats.
His is one of a number of U.S.-based units taking dramatic steps that officials hope will prevent the highly contagious disease from ravaging teams of specially trained personnel.
Even as the Pentagon dispatches tens of thousands of troops to assist with the domestic response, the novel coronavirus poses a major challenge to the military’s ability to continue its core missions. It has sidelined a deployed aircraft carrier, reduced the number of basic recruits entering the military and resulted in the postponement or scaling back of big international exercises. Almost 5,000 service members have tested positive for the virus; two have died.
To blunt the impact on the force, the Pentagon has imposed a global “stop movement” order that freezes most troops in place and introduced other measures designed to reduce risk, including physical distancing and the use of masks.
The response has been different for what the military considers “no-fail” missions, such as manning the NORAD command center, a 24/7 operation typically run out of Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. Now part of that watch mission - the one that Fesler’s team is responsible for - has moved into Cheyenne Mountain, a Cold War-era bunker complex bored into the granite core of a nearby peak.
NORAD officials decided to cloister command center personnel under Fesler’s command two months ago to create a backup capability that could take over if the disease crippled personnel at Peterson.
“Once we started recognizing the trajectory change and the spread of covid-19, that’s when we recognized the need to take measures to prepare our military capability and protect it in the event that we had a worst-case scenario,” Fesler said in a phone interview from Cheyenne Mountain.
His team spends its days inside the mountain’s complex, a feat of 1960s engineering that was designed to withstand a nuclear attack, manning part of the 24-hour watch mission. Guarded by massive multi-ton doors, the complex houses more than a dozen buildings that sit on giant springs in case of an earthquake or a massive atomic blast. It was built to accommodate hundreds of people, including medical facilities and, today, a Subway sandwich shop.
While military personnel from Peterson regularly train at the site, which made its way into popular culture via the 1980s movie “WarGames,” Cheyenne Mountain has been partially occupied for years as NORAD has moved functions to Peterson.
Now Fesler’s team uses an entrance separate from other personnel to access the mountain complex and operates in an area off-limits to other troops. Members of the unit are also isolated from one another, separated into teams of about 15 troops that don’t have face-to-face contact.
After their 12-hour watch shift in the mountain, the unit returns to two cloistered sites on special ”access-controlled cantonments” on Peterson and the Air Force Academy. Fesler said they rarely encounter anyone outside their team. They pick up food from separate dining facilities - meals are left in bags for them to pick up - and bring it back to their individual rooms.
They wear masks in their housing buildings, even though cleaning crews and other support staff are not permitted to enter those areas or work spaces. Supplies are dropped off once a week.
The crew members get gas for their cars - which they use to drive up to the mountain so they do not have to interact with bus drivers - in designated locations. The troops cut one another’s hair. At night, it’s a lot of video chats with their families from their rooms.
“We’re treating it as if we’re deployed in the Middle East or anywhere else,” Fesler said.
If they need to bring someone into their Cheyenne Mountain workspace, to repair a computer for example, “we treat the facility like an airlock,” Fesler said, sealing off the area until that person leaves, after which time they enter wearing protective equipment and clean.
There are clear differences from true combat zone deployments. They do not have to worry about incoming rocket fire or sandstorms, for example.
While the troops are not permitted to interact with others, their families sometimes “dead drop” items for them in the trunk of their parked cars. On one recent occasion, Fesler’s family left him a soccer ball and T-shirts. He saw his family members once when they drove up to drop off belongings - they were wearing masks in the car, and he waved from across a parking lot.
“We all laughed about the absurdity of it later that night when we talked on FaceTime,” he said. “These are strange days for everybody.”
Fesler said no one on the team has gotten sick, but he acknowledged that the risk of contagion remains despite the unit’s precautions, especially because of what authorities say is the high prevalence of asymptomatic spread of the coronavirus.
Unlike Fesler, the members of his unit are operating on schedule of 28 days on, 14 days sequestered at home. When they return for duty, they spend the first 14 days separated from the personnel manning the watch mission at Cheyenne and undergo at least two coronavirus tests before returning to the mountain.
In selecting the team members, they screened out personnel with higher risk factors such as a family member who works in health care.
Fesler said his team was drawing up plans to potentially continue their cloistered status “for months and months” because no one knows when a vaccine will be identified and widely administered. “We’re preparing to stay up here for all the way through the duration,” he said.
If the outbreak worsens in Colorado or the country as a whole, the next stage of cloistering protocol would require Fesler’s team to remain inside Cheyenne Mountain 24 hours a day. But they are not being asked to do so right now, and they’re glad.
“While there’s plenty of food and water and everything, sleeping on a cot in a cave is not the best, I think, for your morale,” he said.
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