We wondered how COVID would affect Holiday Block Leave for the service branches so we did some checking. It appears that no standard set of COVID procedures exists beyond CDC guidelines. Thus, individual commands and bases will have some flexibility depending on their local circumstances. Servicemembers will be tested for COVID prior to taking leave and any who test positive will be prevented from traveling.

In granting Holliday Block Leave, the military services have to balance the need of servicemembers to see their families versus the need to protect the force from COVID infection. To date, some 75,000 members of the military have tested positive for the virus. Relatively few deaths have occurred because servicemembers tend to be younger and in much better health than the general population.

Fort Benning has announced that its COVID safeguards will change from health protection condition level HPCON Bravo to HPCON Charlie, as troops return from leave in the two weeks from January 4 through 18. Condition Charlie will require some quarantine of troops when they return. These will include restricted access to military facilities, cancelation of in-person gatherings, and restriction to barracks or off base housing while returning personnel is tested for COVID. This modified quarantine will mean that most soldiers will be going to work assignments to home without access to other facilities on base.

Fort Sill will test troops returning from leave for COVID tests, imposing 10-day quarantines on those who test positive.

The policies of Joint Base Fort Sam Houston in Texas will be slightly different. Troops returning from Holliday Leave will be screened for COVID-19 and will complete 14 days of movement restriction. During that period virtual instruction will replace in-person learning.

Davidson Fitness Center at Fort Leonard Wood, MO was chosen as the Holiday Block Leave ticketing location this year to ensure more effective COVID-19 social distancing protocols could be followed. (Photo by Brian Hill, U.S. Army)

Troops taking leave in the Army will find that the process for approving leave will change as well. Each of the states and their respective counties are coded based on their outbreak status: Red, Amber, or Green. If your leave takes you to a green county, your company commander is the approving authority, if it’s amber your battalion commander must approve the leave. If travel takes you to a red county, the leave must be approved by your brigade commander. If travel takes the servicemember to any state coded as red overall, leave requires the approval of the first general officer in that chain of command.

The Navy has gone to HPCON Charlie. This means that returning sailors will be under base restrictions upon return. The captains of Navy ships have a great deal of personal latitude in determining the restrictions they might place on their crews to ensure their ships are mission ready. This can lead to applying COVID restrictions differently. Recently, the captain of the USS Rushmore, an amphibious dock landing ship based in San Diego, restricted his crew of 400 to the ship for 28 days. This was in anticipation of a seven-day work-up cruise at the end of December. Such a quarantine would have deprived the crew of any leave over the Christmas holiday. As word got out to the press, the Navy intervened, and, in a rare move, countermanded the captain’s orders allowing the crew leave.

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The DoD has a list of bases that are under travel restrictions. Most of the Army and Navy bases are under travel restrictions, while Air Force and Marine bases are not. Therefore, it appears that the restrictions that servicemembers will face upon returning from leave will differ between services and even installations within the service branches.

As these soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines begin this period of leave we wish them all the best for this Christmas holiday with their families and a safe journey back to their duty stations.