A Soldier Compared Coronavirus Quarantine to Prison. Pentagon Vows to 'Do Better'

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Military Police Company soldier Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst
A 314th Military Police Company soldier stands guard from one of several towers surrounding the mock detainee site at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst during Combat Support Training Exercise 78-16-01 "Arctic Lightning." (U.S. Army photo/Christopher Sofia)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper is pledging to improve the way troops are treated while in coronavirus quarantine after a soldier in Texas reportedly called the situation "the most dysfunctional Army operation I've ever seen."

A soldier, referred to by the pseudonym Henry Chinaski by The Daily Beast, told the outlet he has been stuck in a 15-by-15 foot room with three other troops at Fort Bliss since Sunday. The service members just returned from Afghanistan and have been ordered to remain quarantined for two weeks in case they caught the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, while deployed or returning to the States.

The group gets two meals a day and a couple bottles of water, The Daily Beast reported Tuesday. The soldier, who has served for 17 years, texted reporters with the outlet about their experience. He said they've gotten no information about what they're supposed to be doing while they wait.

"Prisoners receive better care and conditions than that which we are experiencing at Fort Bliss," the soldier told The Daily Beast. "The Army was not prepared, nor equipped to deal with this quarantine instruction and it has been implemented very poorly."

Related: Navy Suspends Sailor Fitness Tests as Other Services Eye Changes

The situation now has Esper's attention, a Pentagon spokesman told reporters Wednesday.

"His response is, 'We can do better, and we need to do better,'" Jonathan Hoffman said. "I know that the commander at Fort Bliss is aware; he has been in contact. My understanding is that he met with all the soldiers who are quarantined and talked through some of their concerns."

The soldier at Fort Bliss told The Daily Beast his exercise has been limited to push-ups, sit-ups and lunges in the room. On Tuesday, the service members got 20 minutes of yard time, according to the report.

The military is now looking at allowing troops stuck in holding patterns before they're considered to be virus-free more time outside, Hoffman said, and visits to base exchanges, where they can purchase toiletries and other items.

"[We're] also looking at other bases that are doing quarantines," Hoffman said. "We're checking to see how they're holding up and doing this, as well. We can do better."

As of Wednesday morning, 49 U.S. troops had tested positive for COVID-19. Another 14 Defense Department civilians, 19 dependents and seven contractors also have the virus.

Hoffman said every base commander is looking at how the military should handle quarantine situations as a result of The Daily Beast's story.

"This is something that's unusual for all these bases to be handling, and they're doing the best they can," he said. "... [But] we owe it to them, and we're going to look into it and try to do better."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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