Virus Outbreak Fort BraggIn this April 17, 2020 photo, a U.S. Army paratrooper assigned to the 347th Quartermaster Company sews together a cloth face mask at Fort Bragg, N.C. Parachute riggers are constructing PPE, while continuing to support Fort Bragg's ongoing Airborne operations. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan)
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — It's become a competition for the soldiers of 647th Quartermaster Company to see who can crank out the most face masks during a shift to protect against the coronavirus.
The parachute rigging unit is essential to Airborne operations at Fort Bragg. On any given day, their shed is filled with paratroopers in red ball caps, busy packing parachutes and readying supplies for jumps.
While that work continues, soldiers across the room are laser focused on tiny pins and buzzing sewing machines. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, riggers are now making cloth face masks to fight the virus for personnel around the sprawling Army base in North Carolina.
Initially, Company Commander Captain Anthony Williams set a goal for his soldiers to produce 600 masks a week. "With the soldiers and their adaptability and their resilience, we’re actually producing 600 masks a day,” Williams told The Associated Press.
North Carolina State University donated 4,000 meters of unwoven material that's being used to construct new personal protective equipment.
Underscoring the need for the protective equipment, Fort Bragg on Friday announced that a civilian employee and a contractor who worked at the base were the installation’s first two COVID-19 related deaths.
The fabric makes its way through a multi-step process and is precisely handled, just as the parachutes riggers pack and troopers trust enough to strap on and jump out of an airplane.
Williams has watched his soldiers embrace the process, some even volunteering to sit behind sewing machines for multiple shifts.
“It shows you that you don’t necessarily have to be in combat to make an impact or overseas," he said. "You can do that right here in the United States.”
Across base, the soldiers of the 188th Brigade Support Battalion are using 3D printers to build face shields.
This PPE is being distributed by the 18th Airborne Corps to units and personnel across Fort Bragg at risk of coming in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.
Many have a connection to the virus. Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Manger thinks about his sister who is a physician in Maine. His face brightens when asked how he feels about helping people. “That's every day in the Army," Manger said. “Right now our medical community is the front line. And dang it, if it means producing masks for the medical community, we’re going to produce masks.”
Follow Sarah Blake Morgan on Twitter at @StorytellerSBM