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The members of the United States’ 8th Army, along with other Army units stationed in South Korea were just given the Army Superior Unit Award for their fight against COVID-19. The Army announced the commendation on Thursday, May 26, citing their efforts to contain and prevent the spread of the virus during the earliest days of the pandemic in 2020.

Cases in South Korea were reported in January 2020, the same time the first infections were discovered in the United States. In the weeks after cases first appeared, they quickly soared, and it turned the country “into the second epicenter of the global pandemic,” according to the Army’s release. One viral hot spot was the city of Daegu, whose metropolitan area was home to four Army stations housing thousands of U.S. service members. 

“As South Korea’s number of confirmed cases continued to increase, the 11,000 troops, dependents, and civilians in Daegu became the first large U.S population to confront COVID-19,” the Army said in its release on the award.

 On Feb. 26, 2020 the first COVID-19 case was reported in an active-duty soldier serving in South Korea. In response to spreading cases, the 8th Army initiated quarantines for potentially exposed soldiers, enacted strict hygiene measures and some lockdowns. It also began monitoring troops’ travel to enact contact tracing. It was one of the first responses by the U.S. military to the pandemic.

The award, created in 1985 to honor units that perform extraordinary service or challenging missions during peacetime. Soldiers awarded the honor can permanently wear the lapel pin. The citation for the 8th Army and other units covers the period from Jan. 28-April 30, 2020.

The news comes the same week as the Army reported new numbers on its vaccination efforts. As of May 26, 97% of active-duty troops are fully vaccinated, and 98% are at least partially inoculated. 742 soldiers have been separated as a result of refusing to get vaccinated against the virus. There have been a total of 4,428 requests for a permanent religious exemption to the COVID vaccine and 732 medical exemption requests. Only 31 exemptions have been granted by the Army. Vaccinations were made mandatory in August. The total number of soldiers punished is at 3,418, up by more than 400 since January. These are in the form of general officer memorandums of reprimand, or GOMORs, which can be permanent or temporary. If permanent, the reprimand can prevent promotions.

The awards for the forces stationed in South Korea also comes as cases are surging in the United States. The rate is four times as high as it was last year when vaccinations were just rolling out. As the country heads into the Memorial Day weekend, approximately 100,000 new cases are being reported each day in the United States. More than one million Americans have died from the virus.

The Army Reserve and National Guard are on a different vaccination timeline than active-duty soldiers; their deadline is the end of June.

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