The Military Has Altered Boot Camp To Protect Trainees. Is It Enough To Prevent Infections?

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Courtesy Sarayuth Pinthong / U.S. Air Force
New Air Force recruits in basic training practice social distancing in their dormitory at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

For recruits in Basic Military Training at Joint Base San Antonio Lackland, typical mornings used to start with a pre-dawn wake up to the sound of reveille, quickly followed by an intense workout, breakfast, showers and chores.

Trainees live and exercise in close proximity. Recruits would hold one another's ankles while doing sit-ups, circle the running track together, and chow down at eating facilities at the same time. Sleeping bays are normally packed with about 60 people.

It's all part of a time-honored system the Air Force uses to produce new troops.

But since the coronavirus outbreak, the environment and tempo of basic training has changed.

Now the Air Force screens new recruits for the virus as soon as they arrive at Lackland, asking them questions about their travel history and whether they're experiencing symptoms. Then they spend the first two weeks doing administrative work, sequestered from the wider basic training population.

The recruits also live in dorms with fewer people, allowing them extra space in an attempt to lessen the chances of the infection spreading. If anyone from the cohort turns out to be sick, their entire flight can be isolated. Dining facilities are now kept open longer to make sure recruits keep their distance and don't rush the counters.

"What we're doing is making sure we maximize social distance and keep trainees separate from other trainees, other military training instructors, as well as our civilian populace," said Gary Moore of the Air Force 737th Training Group at a virtual town hall meeting in March.

Several trainees have now tested positive, though the Air Force said it was able to isolate them quickly and slow an outbreak.

"This is a threat," said Joint Base San Antonio commander Laura Lenderman. "It's a threat inside the fence line and outside the fence line. We're trying to preserve the mission essential functions here so that we can maintain our national defense, and one of our main jobs here is the training mission."

On a conference call with reporters, John DeGoes, commander of the 59th Medical Wing at Lackland, explained his approach to protecting trainees from infection.

Courtesy Sarayuth Pinthong / U.S. Air Force
Air Force trainees in a 14-day restriction of movement period practice basic movements at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. The base instituted the 14-day separation period for new recruits last month.

"The only thing you can do is good, old-fashioned public health, which is isolating, contact tracing, and removing them from the well population that hasn't been exposed," he said.

Lackland is the only place where the Air Force holds basic training. But officials recently announced plans to send 60 new recruits to Mississippi's Keesler Air Force Base starting April 7. The idea is to test how workable it is for the service to use several training locations in an emergency.

"I think it's very sensible since one of the problems with boot camp is that people are packed very tightly," said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel and adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's a classic incubator of disease, even in good times. So spreading them out would be a part of any solution."

Cancian points out that all of the military services are facing the same problem.

"They're trying to keep boot camp open. It's not clear how long they're going to be able to do that," he said. "There's a strong pushback in some segments, arguing that the military should apply the same standards and precautions that you're seeing in the civilian sector.

"If they don't, they're going to have more sickness and perhaps some deaths," Cancian said.

Still, the service chiefs argue they have an ongoing requirement to provide forces to defend the country.

The military's turnover rate is about 25 percent each year. As people with four-year contracts leave the service, new ones must be brought in to keep the numbers up. Cancian said he believes military leadership is concerned about shutting down basic down because it would be difficult to reopen it.

"If you interrupt that flow, then your end strength is going to start to go down unless you take the option of forcing people to stay in the service."

As of early April, young airmen were still working their way through basic military training. Lackland has spaced out the arrivals of new trainees to allow more time to clean the dorms, mess halls and other facilities.

Second Air Force commander Andrea Tullos said she's confident in Lackland's ability to keep new trainees separate and mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

"We're very comfortable with the fact that that population has been 'sanitized' if you want to call it that. To some degree it is. But we have eyes on them constantly," she said in a phone call with reporters.

The experience of one of the other service branches proves how difficult that may be. The Marine Corps has stopped shipping new recruits to its training center at Parris Island, S.C. after dozens of recruits and instructors became infected.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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