'We Are Putting Lives in Danger': Recruiters Urge Boot Camp Closures Amid Pandemic

Brig. Gen. James Glynn officiates the Oath of Enlistment to future recruits.
Brig. Gen. James Glynn, commanding general of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina, officiates the Oath of Enlistment to future recruits during the Fox and Friends morning show in New York during Fleet Week 2019. Recruiters in that state say it’s unsafe to ship recruits to boot camp during the coronavirus crisis. (Sgt. Maverick Mejia/Marine Corps)

Marine recruiters in the state hit hardest by the novel coronavirus have grave warnings about the military's decision to continue sending young men and women off to boot camp in the middle of a global pandemic.

Marines at New York recruiting stations say it's only a matter of time before COVID-19, the serious illness caused by the coronavirus, sweeps through one of the service's two entry-level training depots.

"Decision-makers are absolutely in denial if they believe high rates of infection and hospitalization will not happen on the depot under close proximity and enclosed spaces," one Marine said.

The Marine was one of half a dozen recruiters who spoke to Military.com about carrying out their duty during a global crisis. The six did so on the condition of anonymity in order to share their concerns freely, without fear of retribution.

"How will we ... explain to the families that put their trust in the Marine Corps if something does -- and it will -- happen to the recruit?" the Marine asked. "Why do we always wait until it's too late before we take action?"

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Recruiting can be a high-stress duty, even under normal circumstances. Recruiters work in small teams, face high quotas, and are spread out across the country. But those serving in the special-duty assignment during the coronavirus outbreak are facing unprecedented challenges.

This week, the roughly 4,000 members of Marine Corps Recruiting Command were told that in-person meetings were on hold for at least 30 days. Now, they're relying on phone calls and digital tools to connect with prospective Marines.

"The health and safety of our Marines, civilians and families is the primary consideration in determining how we make the contracting or shipping mission," Maj. Gen. James Bierman, head of MCRC, wrote to his force Wednesday when announcing the new rules.

The Army shifted to virtual recruiting last week. The Marine Corps' announcement followed new stay-at-home orders in several states, including New York.

For some Marines, though, the move doesn't go far enough.

The top concern for most who spoke out was the young people they've recruited who are now in the pipeline to head to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina -- the service's East Coast training base.

The Pentagon has decided that keeping all the services' entry-level training camps up and running is critical to national security. The decision was reportedly at odds with what some service leaders recommended: a temporary pause on recruit shipping until the threat of the coronavirus lessened.

Defense Department officials overrode the recommendations from senior military leaders to halt training for 30 days, The Washington Post reported March 16.

When asked about recruiting concerns in the coronavirus era, one Marine put it bluntly: "We are putting lives in danger en route to [boot camp], and we are taking even a bigger risk by mixing the new recruits with the recruits and permanent personnel on the depot."

Damaging Reputations

The recruiters in New York aren't the only ones concerned about the Defense Department's decision to keep boot camps operating during the coronavirus outbreak.

"We have noticed an increase in negative encounters with parents and influencers," a recruiting station commander said. "I am concerned that we damaged our reputations and relationships that we have worked tirelessly to build in the local area due to the continued pressure to process applicants."

Recruiters rely heavily on their relationships with local coaches, religious leaders and other community members. But some are disappointed recruiters continue shipping young people to boot camp as COVID-19 cases surge, another station commander said.

"We come across as insincere and insensitive to the current situation," the Marine said, adding that the decision to put young people from the country's biggest coronavirus hot spot onto airplanes is "irresponsible."

"Let alone [sending them to] boot camp, where they will live in close quarters with other people," the station commander added. "At this point, the risk is significant, and the medical services in the area are completely overrun."

Officials at Marine Corps Recruiting Command say they recognize that recruiters are dealing with challenges never before seen. They take seriously the health and safety of all personnel and future recruits, said Lt. Col. Christian Devine, a Recruiting Command spokesman.

"Processing is not expected if leaders believe they are putting their Marines or prospects at risk; this will differ across pockets of the nation," Devine said. "Flexibility is inherent to safe recruiting practices, and we'll continue to reassess our operations in order to position ourselves to this changing national emergency."

The Marine Corps' top leaders discussed some of the safety measures being taken at boot camp from the Pentagon this week. That was after two Marines at Parris Island tested positive for COVID-19. Neither work directly with recruits, nor in areas where they train, officials there said.

When new recruits get to Parris Island or San Diego for boot camp, they're isolated to ensure they don't show coronavirus symptoms before beginning training, Commandant Gen. David Berger told reporters.

Recruits are also more spread out in dining facilities where they eat or squad bays where they sleep, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black added.

"Hygiene's always a priority, and cleanliness is always a high priority inside of recruit training because inherently, no matter what, you bring people from across America in one close space, there's challenges," Black said. "That's a good thing, because there's a heightened sense of hygiene already in that environment."

With so many cases in the New York City and Long Island areas, though, one of the station commanders said men or women who weren't showing symptoms could already be at boot camp.

New York had nearly 45,000 coronavirus cases as of Saturday.

Another Marine agreed. Shipping recruits from the epicenter of the virus in the U.S. might only add to the devastating spread. More than 300 troops have already been affected, and COVID-19 has killed an Army spouse and a civilian defense contractor.

Even as the Marine Corps' recruiting and training commands put in place new measures to safeguard people from coronavirus, recruiters are still required to get their applicants who are due to check into boot camp off to hotels by their nearest military entrance processing stations.

And that typically requires driving them in government vehicles.

"I don't know what they're doing and if they've been exposed to the virus, and yet I have to drive them to the hotel for shipping," a recruiter said. "I am being exposed to this virus on a regular basis and, in turn, I am exposing my family."

'Abandoned by the Marine Corps'

Several recruiters shared the concern that their jobs will lead to their own family members being exposed to coronavirus.

Stations don't have enough cleaning supplies, one said, and no personal protective equipment.

"It is impossible to maintain proper social distancing in our vehicles," a recruiter said.

In a March 17 letter to recruiters, Bierman and his senior enlisted adviser, Sgt. Maj. Cortez Brown, said they know their Marines are facing serious challenges in the field.

"We are working closely with all stake-holders to identify opportunities to selectively reduce the mission where we can and reinforce the effort with additional funding," Bierman and Brown wrote. "... Thanks for the part you play in our vital mission, and for doing everything you can to protect yourself, your family and the force."

Recruiting Command prohibited face-to-face meetings five days after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all non-essential workers to stay home.

The command had already directed telework for any service member in a high-risk category, Devine said, or for those with family members at risk for COVID-19. The command is also working with other agencies to ensure personnel have access to cleaning gear and hand sanitizer. They're trying to get gloves, masks and thermometers out to recruiters, he said.

One recruiter has tested positive for COVID-19, Devine added. Another support staff Marine in San Diego has also tested positive.

"Commanders are taking precautions with their teams, and personnel quarantines are being administered prudently," Devine said.

Recruiters say guidance and policy changes have been unclear and contradictory, though. Shifting to phone or digital recruiting methods seems pointless if they're still required to go to the office or transport people headed to boot camp, one said.

"Every time we meet with a poolee, we have no idea who that person has come in contact with," a Marine said, using the term for a prospective service member. "We get them to the [processing station] and checked in, but they could have corona -- there is no way to tell. Then I get to work from home and infect my entire family."

Another recruiter said that, upon returning from those trips, Marines should immediately shower and change their clothes.

Aside from health concerns, recruiters say they're also worried about being able to meet their quotas. High schools across the country have closed, and teenagers are at home with the rest of their families, on lockdown as the virus spreads.

One station commander said that, with training and support, recruiters will overcome the challenge. Another added, "I am not comfortable nor confident in our ability to be successful in a virtual world."

"Our success comes largely from our involvement with our communities, and the relationships we build by coming into direct contact with people," a Marine said. "So although we are an adaptive force, and have proven to make mission against the greatest of odds, going fully digital will certainly be a challenge."

Several recruiters praised their immediate commands for taking steps to protect them ahead of new service-wide policies. That included early telework options or even temporarily shutting down offices as the spread got worse.

Recruiting Command leaders always make people the priority, Devine stressed, though he acknowledged it can be a challenge to understand all of what Marines are dealing with locally.

"Our understanding of the barriers and exhaustive steps each must have to personally take can only be truly appreciated based on one's proximity to the situation," he added.

Recruiters expressed disappointment, anger and fear as they wait for more action to be taken amid this new threat.

"No one knows what to expect, and the guidance from higher has been unclear and unhelpful," a Marine said. "I am sure they are working hard, but we feel like we have been abandoned by the Marine Corps."

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

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