A pair of senior Air Force and Army officers explained July 10 the rigorous “team effort” in place to protect recruits in basic training from the coronavirus even as the nation endures an explosion of new cases that is surpassing 60,000 each day.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Andrea D. Tullos, commander, Second Air Force, Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, and Army Maj. Gen. Lonnie G. Hibbard told reporters during a virtual news conference from the Pentagon that training goals are being met and that, to date, only about 2% of the tens of thousands of recruits who cycle through the two services’ training facilities have tested positive for the coronavirus.
“We are able to ‘fight through’ the pandemic and provide quality Airmen because of a strong culture of safety, strict implementation of the CDC guidelines, and mitigation of risks across our training pipeline,” Tullos said. Hibbard commands the Army Center for Initial Military Training, Fort Eustis, Virginia.
Both the Air Force and Army are applying similar practices and policies. Recruits are tested as they arrive at the training facility. Those who are positive are isolated and given medical care if needed. The others are placed in a 14-day “restriction-of-movement” (ROM) status to prevent the newly arrived recruits from mixing with others. Recruits are tested again at the end of the 14-day session and through training, they receive temperature checks and health questionnaires. Additionally, military training instructors and drill sergeants and other training cadres closely monitor recruits and report any instance when illness – either real or potential – is observed.
As part of that 14-day ROM policy, the new recruits are housed in a geographically separated facility where they live and are introduced to the basics of Air Force life. Academics, drill, and physical training are modified, but continue to occur. In some cases virtual learning is being used to ensure social distance is maintained.
All recruits, cadre and other personnel are required to maintain social distance and wear masks, a standard that is stricter than for the nation as a whole. “Our success of fighting through (the pandemic) has been attributed to our consistent screening of all of our trainees, enforcement of physical distancing and strict hygiene practices at all times,” Tullos said.
Tullos noted another significant change – a shift in the traditional culture surrounding the training facilities and the recruits and staff who live and work there.
“We’re encouraging our trainees to come forward and talk about whether they are not feeling well,” she said. “In the past, our culture was … a kind of ‘suck it up’ culture that wants you to push through, regardless of how you were feeling. That is absolutely the opposite of what we’re encouraging right now.
“We want our trainees to feel comfortable about coming forward if they feel like they have symptoms,” she said.
Both Tullos and Hibbard said production goals are being met. Before COVID-19, the Air Force trained roughly 40,000 each year. This year that number will be lower in response to practices necessary to shield recruits from COVID-19. But, she said, “end strength” targets are being met because retention is “above historic norms.”
In raw numbers, the Air Force has trained 8,700 recruits since March 15 at its main training base, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. To ease crowding at JBSA-Lackland, the Air Force also initiated basic military training at Keesler Air Force Base on June 2. Tullos said Keesler handles about 60 recruits a week and that flow will continue until Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends. She added that senior Air Force leaders may decide to extend Keesler’s training mission.
Hibbard said the Army is applying many of the same practices and protections, but on a much larger scale.
Even though he said, the Army has “46,000 recruits on any given day” in training, like the Air Force, “We’ve been able to quickly detect and respond to COVID cases that occur in the training base.”
Tullos and Hibbard said both services have a strong record of returning recruits who test positive to training and having them complete the course.
“Someone who tests positive when they arrive at basic training is removed from their flight and placed into isolation. I can tell you that all of our trainees who tested positive upon arrival have recovered and have entered the training pipeline,” Tullos said.
“Some are still in the training pipeline so I can’t say all of them have graduated, but none of them have not graduated from basic training because of the COVID-19 virus,” Tullos said.