(Photos at the bottom)
We lived in Korea from June 2018-July 2020 on assignment at Camp Humphreys, the largest US overseas base in the world. In late January 2020, Amanda bought a plane ticket to visit China for the second time, planning to take Levi along this time. As one who enjoys travel, she planned to hit it hard the last few months and go see a few different countries in the region before we moved back to the States. However, three days later, on January 27th, I recorded this in my daily journal: "Amanda canceled her and Levi's China trip due to a flu outbreak." How could we have known that within weeks the problem would be knocking at the door of Korea with the US situation shortly behind. (Fortunately, they instead took a quick trip to Guam before all the travel got shut down.) Within a month the Coronavirus was spreading like wildfire in Korea. Our host nation was quick to implement control measures and the US/Korea partnership agreement brought a total travel halt for all incoming and outgoing US military personnel. We were also restricted to post for many weeks.
After a certain amount of time, certain exceptions were being made for select personnel to enter Korea. However, they were required to conduct a strict 14-day quarantine. Those who did come got driven from the airport directly to quarantine barracks where they could not leave for two weeks. My brigade got tasked to staff these buildings and I was assigned to provide virtual chaplain coverage (no face to face allowed) to the facility with families. Still working like crazy at the battalion, it took a few weeks after this started for me to fully grasp the conditions and challenges the occupants faced. By early May, my eyes were opened to the urgency of the situation when an incoming battalion commander and family requested chaplain support. This was partly because his family was struggling with the conditions and partly because, like a good leader, he wanted to test the systems in place. It took two days for his request to reach me and we set up a phone appointment. A few days later I went to visit my Soldiers who worked in that quarantine building. Occupants were allowed outside their room for thirty minutes a day and I happened to come during that time. After visiting my Soldiers in the makeshift office, I noticed a small handful of families out on the grass, wearing masks of course. I stood at the edge of the grass and paused. I wanted to know what they knew. So I made the decision to approach close enough to talk to them.
For about fifteen minutes I listened to the commander's wife and another couple tell me how difficult the experience had been. Without going into all the details, it was rough. Basic supplies were minimal, (you better hope you packed a towel). Ordering systems were not yet user friendly. Pertinent information was not reaching them. Occupants had to remain within the confines of their room except for thirty minutes a day when they were permitted to go outside for some fresh air. (That luxury did not apply to the first or last three days of their stay.) An added component was having kids in this situation. It's hard to explain to a little one why they cannot go outside that door to play. Since most occupants had no way to get a Korean phone number, they had very little communication and were largely on their own in that room. (Thankfully rooms did have wifi.) It took a toll on these families, some of whom had very young children. It proved a physically and mentally harsh way to enter a new overseas duty station.
I walked off that grassy lawn with a fire in my spirit. I felt like we as a community could do better for these families, who were among the first to arrive in this new environment. This proved a poor first impression of their time in Korea and even some seasoned individuals already wanted to leave. Something more had to be done to improve the quality of life situation. It was May and travel systems were being reopened. Thousands of Soldiers and families would soon be arriving in the next few months. The Army was doing their best to accommodate the unique quarantine requirement. That in itself proved a major logistical challenge. Many leaders worked tirelessly to put essential frameworks in place and I would not envy their responsibilities. Great credit is due to their efforts to quickly build systems that had never been needed before. Still, I believed more needed to be done to 1) better connect people who were in these buildings with the community/resources on post and 2) help inbound people get ahead of the information curve before arriving so they could get prepared for what they were walking into.
Even before I left the facility that day, I called my supervisor chaplain. I said, "Sir, there really needs to be a Facebook group to connect these people..." I didn't even finish the sentence before getting shut down. He instructed me that I would absolutely not create a Facebook group for the quarantine facilities. He believed that would compromise operational security. Two or three weeks passed and still I believed a social media group of some kind would greatly help create an information exchange and prove beneficial to incoming service members and families. There's always a way. The Army owns me, but not my wife. We decided that if I was not permitted to make a Facebook group for quarantine, then Amanda would do it. So on the evening of Friday May 22, 2020, Humphreys Quarantine Support group was launched on Facebook with her as the admin. I hoped some people would join to either assist those arriving or to get information as they prepared to move to Korea. The next morning I opened the group before heading to PT to see that over thirty people had joined overnight. My heart rate jumped as I immediately realized we had touched a nerve. By Monday the group neared one hundred. As quickly as we could we began posting pertinent information about the community and advertising resources. It was not long before high ranking leaders including my brigade commander, division commander, post commander, and many other senior leaders joined the group. It proved very helpful to them to not only support but also to get real-time ground level information as people posted about their experiences in Q. Group members stationed there in Korea were quick to help by answering questions people asked and immediately the community began taking care of the community. It grew rapidly. By the time we departed Korea in July it increased to over 1,200 members, with over half of them still in the States but scheduled to move there. Writing this post, now one month later, the group is currently over 2,500 [update July 2021 - over 8,000 strong] and is thriving with information and resources for those currently in or anticipating quarantine. For me, it's not about the numbers. Those numbers represent many individual people and families. Thousands of questions have been answered and people have been able to gain more peace as they prepare to go to Korea during a challenging time.
As the group grew, many positive things began happening. One of the most fun parts for us was sharing the vision with our chapel and seeing many quickly get behind the cause. With the chapel leadership approval, we began taking food and supply donations and spending offering money (a LOT of money) on essentials which we put in laundry baskets. A mini assembly line operation followed and people signed up to deliver them to families on the day of arrival. (Amanda named this the Basket Brigade, see photos below.) The senior chaplain began delivering cold coffee which was an immediate hit. Spouses in the community also began offering home cooked food and offering to deliver to the buildings. A volunteer shopping group was created to keep pace with the increasing need for grocery delivery. Through the Facebook group we were also able to immediately respond to some very urgent needs. It was a demanding and time-consuming role we found ourselves in but also deeply fulfilling. During this time our family was also preparing for a potential move out of Korea, although in the ever-changing environment we did not know when that was going to happen. About a week before we left we handed over the keys to a few amazing people who took the reigns and have since taken the quarantine support group to new levels. I presume it will continue to grow in size and impact as long as the quarantine mission exists.
Now living in Alaska, I still check up on the group a few times a week. The new admins are working as hard as ever, managing the group on their own personal time. It was a unique situation and Amanda and I feel blessed that we had a part in laying the foundation.
My all-time favorite quote says, "Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in every place you can, with all the zeal you can, as long as ever you can.” – John Wesley
What need do you see around you? Make the decision to get up and do something about it. You never know what kind of impact it will make.