Soldiers take to social media to claim there is a “mass outbreak” of COVID-19 at their training exercise

Photo by Sgt. Aimee Shatto

Rachael Riley

The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.

Paratroopers who are part of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division are using social media to vent concerns about what they say is a COVID-19 outbreak during a training exercise in Louisiana.

The Fort Bragg paratroopers are at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana.

In an anonymous letter that was sent to The Fayetteville Observer, the paratroopers claim there is a “mass outbreak” at the center, echoing similar concerns expressed on anonymous social media accounts.

The Joint Readiness Training Center is one of the Army’s three combat training centers for combat-simulated scenarios.

“The overarching theme of the JRTC is that we want our soldiers’ worst day to be here, rather than in a combat theater,'” said Brig Gen. David Doyle, commander of the center and Fort Polk, during a January ceremony.

During the past several years, paratroopers have been part of Joint Readiness Training Center training rotations.

The paratroopers wrote they “endured” a half-day bus ride to the center with paratroopers who were suspected to be infected with COVID-19 with no social distancing, as paratroopers have tested positive for the virus less than a week-and-a-half later.

“Soldiers are having to sleep amongst those that are infected and are not provided with a place to quarantine or isolate,” the paratroopers wrote.

It is not clear how many paratroopers have tested positive for the virus since arriving in Louisiana, as the Department of Defense officials instructed commanders at individual installations to only release case numbers to local health departments and not the public because of “operational security” concerns associated with releasing the numbers.

A spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division said the positivity rate of the virus during the exercise is less than 5%, which is lower than surrounding communities.

The entire brigade, which is estimated at 4,000, is expected to be part of the exercise.

“A small number of soldiers have tested positive for COVID since their arrival at the Joint Readiness Training Center,” said Lt. Col. Michael Burns, a spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division, adding that the paratroopers were quickly identified and isolated on Fort Polk’s main post away from the training area.

All paratroopers who tested positive are in isolation, all who came in contact with someone who has tested positive are in quarantine and all will be cleared by a medical professional before returning to training, Burns said.

Burns said the paratroopers are in isolation barracks, where they are being provided meals by Fort Polk leadership and seen by medical providers twice a day to “ensure their health and well being.”

Burns said all paratroopers were tested a week before leaving for the exercise and the bus ride, and all were given the option to receive the COVID-19 vaccine before leaving.

“We remain committed to the safety and well-being of our paratroopers and are always balancing the need for safety with the requirement to maintain our readiness to deploy,” he said.

Burns said COVID mitigation measures based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are in place to reduce the spread of the virus.

Prior to leaving, Burns said the paratroopers were given orders to restrict movement of the entire brigade to limit exposure outside the workplace.

“Combined testing and movement limitations were implemented to preserve the brigade’s ability to deploy and to increase the safety and health of our paratroopers while at (the Joint Readiness Training Center).”

Other concerns paratroopers state in the letter include claims that the mental health of the soldiers isn’t being prioritized, soldiers had to find alternate childcare for their children to be on the exercise — including a soldier whose spouse died of COVID-19 — and pregnant soldiers were also expected to attend.

“Vocal soldier concerns for the ongoing pandemic’s threat and increasing infection rates have been silenced, ignored and even reprimanded in some accounts which include but are not limited to, detrimental consequences to their careers,” the paratroopers wrote.

Leading up to the training exercise, the anonymous paratroopers said there are also concerns about no enforcement of mask-wearing and social distancing during PT or training exercises and that COVID-19 guidelines for airborne operations and paratroopers have been ignored.

“Soldiers stated they were told by their command that COVID-19 doesn’t exist on their airborne operation training exercises,” the paratroopers alleged in their letter.

Burns said masks are required at all times when social distancing cannot be observed, and were required during the bus trip to Louisiana.

Temperature checks, symptom screens and handwashing stations are in areas for all units, including the training areas at the Joint Readiness Training Center.

“None of our established procedures have changed for this exercise,” Burns said. “Paratroopers will continue, and leaders will continue to enforce, the protection measures practiced here at Fort Bragg for the duration of this exercise.”

Burns said leaders at every level and paratroopers of every rank are responsible for protecting themselves and their fellow soldiers at all times.

“We do this in garrison, we do this in training events, and we will do this in combat if our nation calls,” he said. “We continue to emphasize the importance of vaccinations for all populations at Fort Bragg to improve the health, safety, and welfare of our paratroopers and their families.”

Similar concerns about training and the pandemic were brought up when the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky was slated for a Joint Readiness Training Center rotation in August.

Leaders with the 101st outlined similar testing and precautions as the 82nd Airborne Division, calling the training part of their responsibility to take care of their soldiers.

“You have to be trained and ready, and that is what JRTC does for a unit when the unforeseen call comes,” Maj. Gen. Brian Winski, commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and Fort Campbell said.

Lt. Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, which is over the 82nd and 101st, made a similar comment during a Fort Bragg town hall meeting in March.

“It’s a balance between risks to force, which is spreading the virus, and the risk to the mission of being able to meet those mission requirements should our nation call,” Kurilla previously said.

Staff writer Rachael Riley can be reached at rriley@fayobserver.com or 910-486-3528.

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