About 1,200 recruits have been cleared to proceed to basic training after being put on standby as U.S. Army training officials raced to finalize a plan for keeping trainees as isolated as possible from possible exposure to the highly contagious novel coronavirus until they arrive at their first unit of assignment.
The temporary delay to shipping dates for recruits occurred over the weekend after the Pentagon announced broad travel restrictions for service members and families in an attempt to halt the spread of the infection known as COVID-19.
Army officials at Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) worked overtime to develop a safe transport plan as recruiters told approximately 1,200 recruits to hold fast and wait for instructions on how they will be transported to training centers for Basic Combat Training (BCT), TRADOC spokesman Col. Richard McNorton told Military.com.
"The movement of trainees has begun effectively immediately; operations are back on," McNorton said.
The first phase of the plan will begin with recruits being screened for COVID-19 at one of the 65 military entrance processing stations (MEPS).
"Once that is complete, they will move by commercial travel to one of the four Army training centers," McNorton said. "They are being briefed on procedures to protect themselves to prevent the spread or the contact of COVID-19 while in en route."
The Washington Post reported Monday that Defense Secretary Mark Esper rejected a plan from the Army to impose a "30-day freeze on sending additional recruits to basic training."
The Navy considered having new recruits stop reporting for training while trainees already in the pipeline would finish, but a decision was made to continue training, the Post reported.
The Pentagon's travel restrictions are scheduled to last through May 11, but include exceptions such as mission-essential travel.
TRADOC leaders consider "moving trainees to the Army training centers in order for them to start Basic Combat Training as mission-critical," McNorton said.
The Army announced in early March that all recruits will be screened for COVID-19 at recruiting stations just before shipping to BCT and then undergo a second round of screening upon arrival at the four training centers -- Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Jackson, South Carolina; Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
"We want to protect the soldier, but the big piece of it is we want to protect our Army training centers," McNorton said. "We do not want to bring an [infected] soldier onto a military base ... that could affect the entire base if one of the soldiers gets into the barracks."
The plan for transporting troops will become more complicated as the Army moves trainees from BCT to advanced individual training (AIT) and then to their first unit of assignment, he said.
The Army's Center for Initial Military Training announced Thursday that it had canceled all initial entry training graduations and related family day events to reduce the risk of exposure before trainees travel to other posts for AIT.
"What we are looking at is, after the trainees graduate from Basic Combat Training and they need to move to AIT, the planners are working on a way to move them through sterile transportation because they have been closed off from the rest of the population," McNorton said.
This will not apply to the trainees at Fort Benning since it is a one-station training site that handles both BCT and AIT, he added.
The recent travel restrictions will also prevent trainees from taking their first leave, typically to visit family, after completing AIT and before reporting to their first duty station, McNorton said, adding that recruits will likely be transported in an isolated fashion from AIT to their unit.
"We are working with Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) on those processes and procedures, again with the focus on maintaining sanitary transportation to keep them isolated from any COVID-19 risk," he said. "We are looking at potentially chartering airplanes, chartering buses -- making sure they are sanitary and clean to protect these service members and the training population as they move from BCT to AIT and from AIT to their first FORSCOM unit.
"Our goal is let's get these people and protect them -- cut them off from everything so that way we can get them trained," he said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.