Leaders at the Joint Readiness Training Center are addressing concerns anonymous Fort Bragg paratroopers have raised about a COVID-19 “outbreak” at the center.
Last week, The Fayetteville Observer was sent an anonymous letter purportedly written by a paratrooper on behalf of other paratroopers. The letter was also shared on social media, where online users commented with similar concerns.
An estimated 4,000 paratroopers are at the center for training, less than 1% of which, a spokesman previously estimated, have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Among the concerns raised in the letter are questions about leadership within the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division; whether proper precautions are being taken during training during the COVID-19 pandemic; and claims that paratroopers who have since tested positive for the virus infected others during the bus ride to Louisiana.
Officials have said all paratroopers were tested before the bus ride and before leaving the Fort Bragg, and that they were given the option to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
The letter and online comments also brought up concerns about how those with COVID-19 are quarantined in Louisiana, what they’re being fed and the water in Louisiana.
“Hundreds of soldiers that are being sent for the training exercise named JRTC, or Joint Readiness Training Center, are now battling a mass outbreak,” the letter reads. “Soldiers are having to sleep amongst those that are infected and are not provided with a place to quarantine or isolate.”
Brig. Gen. David Doyle, commander of Fort Polk and the Joint Readiness Center, and Col. Jody Dugai, commander of Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital at Fort Polk, spoke to The Fayetteville Observer on Thursday.
Doyle reiterated that before leaving Fort Bragg, all paratroopers were tested for the COVID-19 virus and had their movements restricted as a precautionary requirement established by U.S. Army Forces Command.
“They did a thorough screening and every paratrooper was asked if they came in contact with someone who they thought had COVID-19,” Doyle said.
Doyle explained Fort Polk is set up with a north and south region, with the north region being the training area.
Military personnel in the south region are not allowed to go to the north area, unless approved, tested, cleared and screened for the virus to ensure the populations aren’t mixed.
“Once (the paratroopers) arrived they were kept in a training bubble,” Doyle said.
He said a small number of paratroopers who came to the Joint Readiness Center tested positive for the virus when arriving and that they were quickly isolated.
The brigade has been tested by Fort Polk’s hospital staff to allow results to come back in about three hours, Doyle said.
Additionally, Fort Polk has new barracks within their garrison where the COVID-19-positive paratroopers stay and are visited by a field officer each day.
Doyle said it’s across the street from the hospital, should the soldiers need further medical attention. He said none of the paratroopers who have tested positive have required hospitalization.
Online comments and concerns raised in the letter claimed the 3rd Brigade Combat Team paratroopers showing symptoms of the virus are being kept in the “box” or training area
Dugai said if someone complains of having symptoms of COVID-19, they are placed in a holding area and tested. If results come back negative, they are either treated for their cold or other illness, or they are returned to training. If the test is positive, the soldier is transported to the isolation barracks by personnel wearing protective equipment.
“We don’t send them on a plane, train or bus during the 10 days of isolation or 14 days of quarantine, depending on when they tested positive,” Dugai said.
If the soldier’s unit has ended training during the isolation or quarantine phase, Dugai said, the COVID-19 positive soldiers will remain at Fort Polk until the quarantine ends and they test negative for the virus.
Food and water concerns
The letter also stated that quarantined soldiers “are concerned for their nutrition, as soldiers have been reporting that frequently they have been receiving minuscule amounts of food or none at all.”
Doyle said quarantined and isolated paratroopers are being fed the same meals served in Fort Polk’s dining facilities and given to all soldiers, noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers.
In one of the online comments sent to The Fayetteville Observer, a person claimed a field sanitation worker told them the water was not safe to drink, so chlorine was placed in it and their squad was getting headaches.
Doyle said water at Fort Polk is monitored by the state of Louisiana and federal regulators, and professionals from the hospital’s preventative medicine department also examine it. It has been rated safe each year, he said.
The only difference is there is a higher concentration of manganese in Louisiana, which gives it a brown appearance, though Doyle said it is safe to drink and another additive that is not a health threat will soon be added to change the color.
What leaders have said about collective training
During the early part of the pandemic last year, two rotations at the Joint Readiness Training Center were canceled.
By April, senior Army leaders finalized plans to return to collective training.
“The Army continues to need a manned, ready force,” even while balancing operations and combating COVID-19,” former Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville said collective training “is crucial,” but leaders needed to ensure the right measures were in place.
“It’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution,” McConville said in an Army article in April. “But we’re looking. “But we’re looking at the long game. We’re not waiting for COVID-19 to go away.”
Lt. Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, which is over the 82nd Airborne Division, 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 said.
Since then, there have been rotations at the center with the 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade, the 101st Airborne Division, the 25th Infantry Division and another Security Force Assistant Brigade.
Training at the Joint Readiness Training Center provides soldiers with opportunities their home stations can not, Doyle said.
He said there are personnel who are “intensely familiar” with the training area, and their only mission is to act as “aggressors” toward the training soldiers to simulate any threats they’d face by an opposing force.
He said there are coaches, observers and trainers who ensure the soldiers are able to execute safe actions during dangerous situations and conduct thorough after-action reviews to better the soldiers.
“Another thing every soldier and paratrooper gets here is data indicators, which tracks every individual’s engagements,” Doyle said. “At the end of the rotation, we’ll show them imagery and pictures… . So it allows them to see that first hand and take that back with them.”
There’s training for electronic warfare, which replicates what’s seen on social media or with cyber strikes.
Training scenarios are built out 270 days in advance with specific scenarios designed for each unit, such as scenarios for the 82nd Airborne Division’s Immediate Response Force.
“We want to ensure every single soldier who comes here can redeploy back to their home station and is prepared for whatever mission is given by their unit,” Doyle said. “And we’re doing that with a set of protocols to protect against COVID-19 and all other threats that come with high-risk training.”
Training at Fort Polk is not new, starting with World War II soldiers, and training before conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
“We’re still doing that today and want most to have the most difficult training we can possibly render and want the hardest day for paratroopers and soldiers to be here at JRTC and Fort Polk and not be in combat,” Doyle said.
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