While civilians were being instructed to stay at home in mid-March as the coronavirus erupted across the United States, Marines were training advanced air and ground tactics in Yuma, Arizona.
Nearly 4,000 Marines were flying in for a seven-week weapons and tactics course hosted by Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One that began on March 8. Even as a military travel ban, issued on March 16, barred troops from leaving their local jurisdiction except for essential missions, Marines still traveled from other bases like Jacksonville, North Carolina; Okinawa, Japan; and Hawaii for the course.
“The fact that they were bringing in thousands of Marines from all over the world for that training in the middle of the whole coronavirus outbreak was just ridiculous,” said a Marine staff noncommissioned officer who participated in the exercise and spoke, in a phone interview, on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprimand from his command.
“We were bringing everybody in, bringing all these people from, you know, the East Coast, West Coast, overseas, cramming them into little spaces, bringing them all into formation, so if somebody did have it and didn’t know, we were just spreading it around.”
“And then they canceled it and sent everybody home,” he said. They were “literally breeding the virus and redistributing it to the world so a few pilots can become instructors,” he added in an email.
When the twice-a-year exercise, still deemed essential by the commandant, was canceled early in the week of March 23 before the first fly day, far before its scheduled April 26 end date, “to preserve the safety of our troops,” according to a press statement, the participating Marines simply were sent back to their home duty stations.
“I just think they waited way too long. It’s too little too late,” said the staff noncommissioned officer, who is an aviation maintainer. He acknowledged it was “a pretty big deal” the exercise was canceled. “These are all the exact opposite of preventative measures.”
But preventative measures don’t seem to be the main focus for the Corps.
In early April, companies of Marines were still in the field conducting routine exercises, and at night retreating to sleeping bags near their battle buddies. At the East Coast’s Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, a group of about 400 Marines were working on their annual qualification at the rifle range as usual, before new precautions were put in place.
Over in Camp Pendleton, California, some 20 Marines from the 1st Marine Division were working in a classroom together, sitting on couches, many situated within inches of their neighbors, as verified in a photograph. Marines in that company have been required to come into work each day.
At multiple Marine bases, Marines were being told to congregate only in small groups—but many had been given that initial news in a large gymnasium announcement.
“I’m not happy,” said an East Coast Corps public affairs official who asked to remain anonymous so that he could speak freely and avoid any pushback from his command. “We’re doing some nonessential training and operations. It’s just dumb.”
“We’re playing a reactive game when we should be proactive,” he wrote in a text message. “We aren’t making decisions or taking actions until we have to, and by that time, it could be too late.”
But as the military reality sees more and more service members infected with the virus, questions linger. Did the military do enough to protect itself when it became aware of the coronavirus? Is the Marine Corps taking the threat seriously enough? Did it respond too late?
The coronavirus pandemic has placed the military in a different scenario than it has faced in at least 200 years, according to retired Navy Rear Adm. Thomas Cullison, who served as deputy surgeon general of the Navy from 2007-2010.
“When you think of military health our usual scenario is we usually deploy overseas. Marines go forward overseas in some other country,” he said. Troops are typically starting from a healthy community, he said—a safe place like North Carolina and then moving into a place of turmoil like the Middle East.
Not only is that threat practically inverted now, he said, it is everywhere, including the places that troops live.
Pandemics “have always been intellectual exercises,” as part of military disaster planning, he said. But “now it’s real.” And commanders and military health leaders have had to make decisions to balance the contagion’s menace, while keeping military readiness in position should an enemy larger than the virus choose to attack.
Across the military, heightened base protection orders have been engaged to try to limit the spread of the virus. Troops and service member families have been restricted from traveling outside of local areas except for “essential” tasks, such as humanitarian aid or mission requirements deemed crucial by commanders. Duty station transfers have been halted, per Defense Department orders. Each branch’s headquarters has instructed service members by mass memos and announcements not to gather in groups of more than 10, less than six feet apart from each other. Many troops are working from home, depending on the decision by their command.
The canceling of large-scale exercises was one of the first steps the military took as the coronavirus took hold on U.S. soil. But in the Marine Corps’ case of the WTI in Arizona—and an integrated training exercise in Twentynine Palms, California—the decision to cancel was made at the last hour.
In addition, military restrictions set by the Arizona base’s commanding officer put in place limitations on gatherings of more than 50 people and to about 10 for the on-base Exchange store. However, that same morning at the WTI, training leaders said it was fine for 250 Marines to be in a room, according to the Marine staff noncommissioned officer who was there.
Everything was “going on like there was no difference,” he said. “It seemed like they really weren’t taking it seriously.”
Big formations and large classes were still taking place, as were air wing maintenance meetings with 60-some Marines crammed into a room, he said. Though, he explained, as more of the leadership grew concerned about the coronavirus, the noncommissioned officer’s fixed-wing maintenance control chief still told Marines that if they had a sore throat or a cough not to go to medical: “We need all of our personnel,” the chief said, according to the noncommissioned officer.
Meanwhile, across the Corps, Marine recruiters voiced complaints that they were putting themselves and their families at risk as recruiting efforts pushed forward despite a national and worldwide pandemic. A recruiter in Jacksonville, North Carolina, said that he wasn’t allowed to work from home until the end of March. They had been instructed to continue in-person meetings until then.
“I personally don’t have any kids, but many recruiters do,” the Marine said in a March 28 email. “So, them asking us to get area canvassing contacts by going out in public trying to talk to people to get appointment is ridiculous. The other branches used common sense and started online interviews when it began.” It wasn’t until almost April that Marine Corps Recruiting Command announced that recruiters could go digital and not have to meet recruits in person.
An engineer at Camp Pendleton, California, recounted a few times he sent Marines to medical to get checked. A lieutenant with a bad cough was quarantined for 48 hours. She was “obviously sick,” but when she texted a medical officer to check in two days later, she was told by text that she was fine to go back to work. A corporal in the engineer’s company was also sent to medical.
“He filled out the form saying he has all of the symptoms for coronavirus. They got the form, looked at him and said, ‘Oh, you’re OK. Just go back.’ He’s just back to work.” Officers are sending people to medical with all the symptoms, only to have them be turned around with no test, he said.
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At Fort Campbell, Kentucky—in a state that reported nearly 4,000 coronavirus cases as of April 24—Army soldiers have been isolated and sitting in their barracks room all day with the basic requirement of checking in for physical training three times a week. But in coronavirus-racked state of California, with nearly 38,000 cases as of the same day, the engineer’s Camp Pendleton battalion has been requiring all Marines to be at work each day. As far as workload, it’s mostly business as usual: learning together in the classroom and heading outside for weeklong company field exercises.
Physical training has been tweaked, as gyms are closed and PT is now being done on a platoon level—for the engineer, 13 Marines. However, the Marines aren’t allowed to do crunches, as in doing so “mouths can get relatively close to each other,” he said.
Overseas, many of the approximately 700 Marines who have been on a planned six-month rotation in Norway since September 2019 are essentially stuck while a military travel ban is in place, but they will continue their training “with slight modifications due to COVID-19,” according to 2nd Lt. Ryan Kierce, spokesman from Marine Rotational Force—Europe. The Marines’ cold-weather training has been continued during this time, which has been beneficial, but “in-person meetings with Norwegian counterparts” have been limited, Kierce wrote in an email on April 21.
The Marines were scheduled to rotate home from Norway late March or early April, according to an emailed statement by Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, director for communication strategy and operations at Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa. However, some of the Marines will likely head home before the next rotation arrives, but the remaining Marines will stay and wait for their arrival.
“We recognize that the delays in MRF-E rotation’s redeployment have added stress to military families and friends who are awaiting the return of their loved ones from Norway,” Kierce wrote. But the strain on families due to extended deployments and stressful work requirements during a pandemic may eventually make an impact on Marine Corps retention.
‘Ready to Go’
It seems incredible to some that the military would have any hesitation in halting training in order to protect the health of troops. Without new recruits, for example, the military will lose about 2% of its end strength per month, said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel and senior adviser in the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
“After a couple of months, you’re going to see some real damage to force structure and forces,” he said.
And though the Corps briefly had to shut down recruit training at its East Coast depot in Parris Island, South Carolina, due to a coronavirus outbreak, training has resumed and is rolling at both its East and West Coast posts. And training is continuing in other places, as readiness is something the Marine Corps cannot compromise, according to its top leaders.
“We train so that we’re ready to go,” top Marine Gen. David H. Berger said in a video posted on Twitter on April 5, responding to questions of why the Marine Corps hadn’t canceled recruiting or other trainings. “We never get the chance to pick the next crisis—where it happens, when it happens. When the president calls, Marines and the Navy team respond immediately.”
The tension for the military is “maintaining the military capability—and the pipelines and basic levels of training—and force protection,” said Cancian.
But force protection isn’t the focus right now, he added. If it were, the military would have to adopt the same precautions civilian society has—i.e., the military would end all training and tell troops to shelter in place. Navy ships wouldn’t be deploying, which could hurt not only relationships with allies but also U.S. global presence and the deterrence of potential adversaries.
Potential adversaries may “see an opportunity, where we see a global pandemic,” said Cancian. A potential adversary could be anyone from North Korea, which is claiming it has no coronavirus cases, to Iran, which may be getting desperate. It also could be China, he said, which may believe it is gaining an upper hand as it recovers from the outbreak, which originated in Wuhan.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced on April 5 that all service members, DOD contractors, civilians, and military family members would, starting the next day, be required to wear face coverings on base and DOD facilities when a six-foot distance couldn’t be maintained. But a video sent to Task & Purpose deputy editor Jared Keller shot that same day and later posted on Twitter shows dozens of maskless Camp Pendleton, California, Marines shoulder to shoulder in a line as tight as an amusement park queue, waiting their turn for the on-base barbershop, which has remained open.
— Jared Keller (@jaredbkeller) April 13, 2020
Like the other military branches, the Corps has maintained its grooming standards, which Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley was supportive of in an April 14 Pentagon press conference with reporters.
But Esper, also present, wasn’t sympathetic with the close line of Marines: “The commandant, if he’s watching, probably is already on it,” and if not, he’ll be getting a call soon, he said. “What don’t you guys understand? Suspend haircuts, right, for whatever period of time.”
There are noticeable changes that have occurred in the last few weeks of April and early May, nonetheless. Many military bases have limited entry points and adjusted hours for gate openings. Many commissaries have limited the number of people allowed in a store at a time. Though the Marine Corps continues to train on its rifle ranges, in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, as previously stated, since then weekly quotas for Marines on the range have been reduced by half, and Marines are now placed six feet apart when shooting, said Brian Pensak, executive officer, Weapons Training Battalion, in an emailed statement on April 21.
“Each morning unit leaders screen their shooters to see if anyone has symptoms or someone did not show up to the range because of illness,” he wrote. Smaller groups of Marines are allowed in the armory at a time, “to avoid backup and overcrowding.”
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Until large-scale testing is readily available, the military services are going to have to work out more protocols to reduce risk to an acceptable level while maintaining military readiness, according to Cancian.
Once Covid-19 testing is widely available, it will be easier to ask for a 14-day quarantine period, followed by a virus testing of all Marines before they head out together on a Marine Expeditionary Unit, Cancian said. That, along with repeated testing during a deployment, should reasonably mitigate the risk of the MEU Marines contracting the potentially deadly virus. But until that widespread testing happens, the military is going to have to keep guessing as it goes.
“The military’s going to have to figure out those protocols, and they have not done that yet,” said Cancian.