This article by Diana Stancy Correll was originally published by the Air Force Times
More than 1,400 trainees are graduating from the Air Force’s Basic Military Training on Thursday — all clad in face masks in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Air Force characterized the graduation at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas as a “historic occasion” due to the face masks, and that a double graduation is slated for the day in an effort to remove more trainees from the BMT campus.
On Sunday, the Pentagon announced that service members are instructed to wear “cloth face coverings when they cannot maintain six feet of social distance in public areas or work centers.” The guidance said that medical personal protective equipment like N95 masks would not be distributed, but rather encouraged service members to create their own coverings from “household items.”
The Air Education and Training Command has complied with DoD guidelines, and said neck gaiters, neck warmers and balaclavas were all acceptable forms of face coverings. Additionally, the command said that BMT leadership is working to obtain face masks to distribute to staff and trainees.
“The safety of our Airmen and families is our top concern as we continue our essential mission of recruiting, training and educating exceptional Airmen,” Maj. Gen. Craig Wills, 19th Air Force commander, said in an Air Force news release.
“Cloth face masks provide an added layer of protection for everyone on our team. Being proactive with the things we can control is critical in our battle against the virus.”
The Air Education and Training Command has taken several steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among trainees. For example, trainees are now graduating after seven weeks, rather than at eight a half to promote social distancing precautions.
The shake up in training length is why two classes are graduating from BMT on Thursday: one wrapped up their training in eight and a half weeks, while the other class is being pushed out after seven and a half weeks.
As of Tuesday, the Air Force is now cutting down the number of trainees who report for duty to about 460. That’s a drop from the up to 800 trainees in each class under normal circumstances. Additionally, 60 trainees were sent to Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi this week rather than Lackland to conduct basic training.
“A variety of approaches are being used to shorten the training length, such as decreasing time spent on certain drill and ceremony items,” the Air Force said in a news release Wednesday.
As of Tuesday, the Air Force said 351 airmen have tested positive for COVID-19, along with 129 civilians, 99 dependents and 43 contractors.