Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of reports on the lasting impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. military.
Military efforts to halt the spread of the COVID-19 have now been cited in at least two investigations into fatal accidents, and leaders in Washington say they're concerned about the pandemic's long-term effects on safety and readiness.
The global pandemic has wreaked havoc on military training over the last year. From temporarily halting the influx of new recruits at boot camp to canceling large-scale international exercises once troops arrived in-country, all the military services have had to grapple with constantly changing circumstances during the world's biggest health crisis in a generation.
The military was quick to put restrictions into place to help limit the spread of COVID-19, which has infected nearly 180,000 troops and killed 24. But now, some of those restrictions, including pre-deployment quarantine periods and the curbing of in-person training requirements, have been cited as factors leading to a pair of separate accidents that killed 10 troops.
One airman was killed in a vehicle rollover in Kuwait in September after the Air Force lifted an in-person tactical vehicle course requirement for deploying Security Forces personnel, an investigation into his death found. Eight Marines and one sailor were killed two months earlier when their amphibious assault vehicle filled with water and sank near California. Pandemic restrictions affected the Marine AAV platoon's ability to train with their vehicles, officials found.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say they are worried the military is only beginning to see how the pandemic has negatively affected training, readiness and, ultimately, safety.
"Over the past year, nearly 200 Navy ships have suffered outbreaks, which in some cases disrupted training and operations," Rep. Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a February hearing. "Across the services, hundreds of training exercises have been canceled, curtailed or altered; this is especially problematic for our service members overseas who rely on international exercises to maintain proficiency."
Rim of the Pacific, or RimPac, the biggest international maritime exercise, was significantly scaled back last year due to the pandemic. About 25,000 military personnel from 30 countries were supposed to attend. Instead about 5,000 troops from 10 countries took part -- and the whole exercise took place at sea.
And when 1,000 Marines arrived in Norway earlier this year for a big Arctic training exercise, the training was called off over concerns of spiking COVID-19 numbers there.
Smaller-scale exercises were curtailed, too, especially early in the pandemic.
The Navy temporarily modified Battle Stations, its culminating training event at the end of boot camp and Officer Candidates School meant to mimic a ship emergency, to meet social-distancing and other pandemic safety requirements. Changes included shifting the location and limiting the number of personnel participating, said Lt. Cmdr. Phil Chitty, a Naval Service Training Command spokesman. The event for both enlisted trainees and officer candidates has now largely returned to normal, he said.
Anything that harms proficiency, even if unintentional, can have serious effects, Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee, told Military.com last week. That was evident in the AAV accident, he said, when personnel and equipment weren't ready for a dangerous real-world mission.
"I am very concerned," Garamendi said about the pandemic's effect on military training. "... There may very well be some very serious problems that might manifest in a terrible accident."
Troops have also been tasked with a host of domestic missions during the pandemic. That has included sending hospital ships and medical personnel to cities in crisis and helping with vaccine rollouts.
Kathleen McInnis, a national security expert and nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, said there are likely trade-offs when the military is asked to do missions outside its traditional roles.
"Are we degrading the military's ability to do the core mission of fighting and winning the nation's wars?" she asked. "Do we detract from readiness?"
Senior military leaders told Rogers, Garamendi and other House members in February that even when military units saw big training exercises canceled or scaled back, they adjusted with smaller events to help maintain combat readiness.
"Of course, there is some quality lost in those larger formation training and exercises," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, vice director for operations on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. "But I would say the overall sea-ratings or readiness ratings for all of the services and combatant commands have stayed within historic norms largely because of the adaptive and aggressive action by the services and the combatant commands."
But Garamendi said he's not convinced that's the case. The Air Force vehicle rollover and Marine AAV accident, he said, raise flags about training requirements being curbed or overlooked during the pandemic.
The congressman said the House plans to call the Marine Corps' top general to testify about safety shortfalls next month. Hearings with other service leaders could follow, he added.
-- Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.