To help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, this year's ticketing process is a lot different than in years past, said Aaron O'Donoghue, Leisure Travel Services manager.

More than 200 trainees assigned to Company D, 787th Military Police Battalion, lined up bright and early on the morning of Oct. 21 at Davidson Fitness Center — not to exercise, but to be the first service members here this year to begin the process of purchasing tickets and getting travel itineraries organized with family and friends for the annual Christmas through New Year’s Day break from Fort Leonard Wood called Holiday Block Leave.

To help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, this year’s ticketing process is a lot different than in years past, said Aaron O’Donoghue, Leisure Travel Services manager.

Instead of long lines of trainees at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service Mini Mall — where LTS is located — the fitness center was chosen to allow for better social distancing.

“There’s definitely more space at Davidson for them to spread out,” O’Donoghue said. “We can also group them by general destination there as well which helps streamline the process of getting everyone processed as quickly and easily as possible.”

According to Delta Company Commander Capt. Joshua Penny, the process of ensuring his trainees get home for the holidays was “smooth and efficient.”

“Us being the first ones, we thought there might be a couple of hiccups this morning, but everyone did a great job planning out the space here ahead of time,” he said. “How they have the flow of everything going — it was pretty smooth, all things considered.”

O’Donoghue said trainees are somewhat limited this year on where they can visit due to COVID-19. International travel isn’t authorized, which means trainees wanting to travel to U.S. states and territories outside the 48 contiguous states need to take extra care when booking flights.

Regardless of where they are travelling for the holidays, LTS travel agents are working to help each trainee get the best bang for their buck.

“Every trainee is given the option to fly or take a bus, so they can get pricing for both options,” O’Donoghue said. “Also, when they book through LTS, they receive a military discount on flights and our agents are well versed on the conditions for HBL travel. They will make sure to book for the correct dates and times. We can’t fix mistakes made when tickets are purchased outside of LTS.”

One trainee who’d rather fly than take a bus is Pfc. Shannon Milinazzo. She is planning to travel about 3,700 miles up to Anchorage, Alaska, to visit her significant other stationed at Fort Richardson.

“It’s beautiful there,” she said. “The views, the animals — it’s not too much city. It’s a lot of wildlife and it’s different; you actually get to see the stars.”

While Milinazzo may want to consider packing a jacket for her vacation, Pfc. Ricardo Lopez certainly won’t need one — he’s making plans to visit his family in Caguas, Puerto Rico.

“Joining the Army and coming to Fort Leonard Wood was the first time I’ve been away from home,” he said. “I like it here, but I miss my family. I’m looking forward to seeing my mom, and Christmas is very different in Puerto Rico. So, I’m very grateful they’re giving us the opportunity to travel.”

Lopez said he’s still getting used to autumn in Missouri.

“I’ve never been this cold in my whole life,” he said. “I’d never seen deer or armadillos before either — we don’t have those in Puerto Rico.”

Sitting next to Lopez was a private who is planning a surprise visit to his family in the seaside municipality of Añasco, Puerto Rico.

“I only told my friends,” he said. “They’re going to pick me up at the airport in San Juan. I think my mom’s gonna cry when she sees me.”

The private said he looks forward to “the beach, catching some waves” over the holidays.

“It’s summer all year where I’m from,” he said.

By the time the HBL ticketing process is complete, O’Donoghue said his team of agents will have helped thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines get home for the holidays.

“It’s a team effort and we all love to see the smiling faces on the days and nights of departure,” he said. “I’m happy we can help get these service members connected with their friends and families.”