As the entire nation braced for the spread of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19, the American military’s basic training institutions were not spared. Each military branch took immediate steps to curb the spread of the virus, but one of the most difficult areas to manage has consistently been basic training, where young men and women from all over the country are shipping to a handful of bases to begin their journeys into service.
Steps have been taken across the force to enable screening of inbound recruits and trainees to separate anyone that is demonstrating signs of potential infection. The young men and women bound for basic training facilities across the nation have their temperatures taken before and after transportation to the installations, as well as during their pre-shipment screenings at Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS). They are also asked questions that can help inform the degree of potential exposure to the virus, such as if they’re feeling any potential symptoms, if they’re coming from a high risk community, or if they know they’ve been exposed to someone who was sick.
Precautions don’t end there, however. After shipping to basic training, new recruits and trainees are further isolated from the rest of the training community for a period of 14 days, in order to allow any potential symptoms to surface, so adequate measures can be taken not only to treat the sick person, but also to ensure their exposure to other trainees or recruits remains limited.
Nearly every branch has also seen a reduction in the number of new recruits and trainees being sent to basic training, in order to allow for greater dispersion of people in vehicles and in training facilities. This, in conjunction with changes in training practices to allow for social distancing whenever feasible, helps to reduce the likelihood of transmission even if someone were to somehow make it through the multiple layers of screening established on the onset of their basic training journey.
Last month, the Defense Department also established guidelines requiring that military personnel utilize cloth masks whenever they are in situations that will not allow for social distancing. While cloth masks are not extremely effective in eliminating COVID-19, they are an effective means of reducing the level of expelled moisture in the air from one’s mouth as they breath, speak, cough, or sneeze. In effect, the physical barrier of the mask helps to mitigate the spread of potentially infected saliva.
While each branch has approached the challenges presented by COVID-19 slightly differently, this disparate approach has allowed commanders and senior enlisted leaders the opportunity to make decisions based on the situation at hand, rather than adhering to a nation-wide guideline that may not be “one size fits all.” Commanders are making every effort to ensure two things: that training personnel and inbound recruits and trainees are safe, and that the accession pipeline into military service does not halt in the face of the COVID-19 threat.
“As leaders, we know what right looks like. It may look different tomorrow, but today right looks like this, and you make that call,” Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps,Troy E. Black, explained in a recent video produced by the Marines.
The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David H. Berger, went on to address why it is essential that training continues despite the ongoing pandemic.
“Why do we continue to do recruit training in the middle of this terrible virus?” General Berger asked himself aloud rhetorically.
“We never get the chance to pick the next crises, where it happens, or when it happens. When the president calls, Marines and the Navy team, we respond immediately. So we must continue to train. We have to continue recruit training, because this nation relies on its Marine Corps, especially in tough times.”
While some branches, like the Marine Corps, have extended the basic training timeline to allow for two weeks of pre-training isolation, other branches, like the Air Force, have slightly shortened the training revolution, to allow for more recruits to receive adequate training, while also limiting the number of recruits training together to allow for social distancing.
“This will allow BMT to restructure and enhance social-distancing requirements across the training campus to ensure the safety and security not just for the trainees, but for the Military Training Instructors, other active-duty members, civilians and contractors that support the mission,” the Air Education and Training Command said in a news release.
“Also, there will be rescheduling of recruit accessions to maintain social distancing mitigation efforts as to how BMT is innovating how Airmen are trained in order to meet the national security needs of the nation,” the statement said.
The Navy has even chosen to keep all training personnel on-base, to limit their exposure to the outside world and help to ensure new recruits can’t be exposed to the virus once already in training.
“Great Lakes is having, I think it’s somewhere around 800 people from the staff living on board so that they minimize the opportunity for exposure to recruits. We put (recruits) in a 14-day ROM [restriction of movement] when they come aboard; it’s almost meaningless if they continue to have exposure to people who are coming and going from the outside world. So the solution they came up with is, let’s move everybody aboard,” Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, Russell Smith said in April.
With the entire world working to offset the spread of COVID-19 while simultaneously trying to re-establish some level of normalcy, the U.S. military will almost certainly continue to adjust its strategy when it comes to shipping new recruits and trainees to basic training while ensuring America’s defense apparatus maintains the numbers it needs to defend our countries interests and serve as a stabilizing presence at home and abroad.
The men and women who volunteer to serve in the United States military know when they sign up that they’re in for a fight, and with training and guidance from professional military leaders, COVID-19 may well be their first battle, but it can also be their first victory.