U.S. Navy and Marine Corps service members in Guam were ordered on Wednesday to break their own quarantine to set up makeshift shelters for U.S. troops coming off a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, where an outbreak of the novel coronavirus is rapidly spreading within the hulls of the ship.
Some of the U.S. troops at Naval Base Guam, located on the western side of the U.S. territory at Apra Harbor, were assembled into 100-man working parties to begin transforming some of the base’s facilities into temporary quarantine shelters for some of the 5,000 service members arriving from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, a naval vessel where COVID-19 is spreading.
“We found several more cases aboard the ship, we are in the process now of testing 100 percent of the crew of that ship to ensure that we are able to contain whatever spread that might have occurred there... but I also want to emphasize that the ship is operationally capable and can do its mission if required,” said Acting Navy Secretary Thomas B. Modly at the Pentagon on Thursday.
U.S. Navy officials told The Daily Beast that 23 sailors onboard the Roosevelt tested positive for COVID-19 and that testing capabilities for the coronavirus are limited. The Wall Street Journal first reported the latest figures on Thursday. In total, the Navy has 133 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 104 of which are active-duty.
One U.S. service member assigned to the working parties in Guam, who asked not to be named, told The Daily Beast that some troops are afraid they will contract the coronavirus from crew members arriving from the Roosevelt.
The service member added, “We’re fucked.”
At a virtual town hall held from the Pentagon on Tuesday and streamed to Facebook live, Defense Secretary Mark Esper cautioned troops from holding mass troop formations and urged both service members and commanders to follow the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But in Guam on Wednesday, both Navy and Marine Corps service members set up roughly 140 military beds in a basketball gymnasium. To squeeze more troops into the gym, Navy medical professionals recommended measuring the six-foot distance per guidance from the CDC from the center of the bed rather than from the outer edges, meaning that the beds are actually three feet apart. The CDC also suggests avoiding mass gatherings as a part of its social distancing guidelines.
Meanwhile, soldiers from the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division are adjusting to the frustration of being stuck in Kuwait for a deployment now extended due to Esper’s new order preventing troops overseas from coming home for another 60 days. They were the ones sent to the Mideast to deter Iran after December’s violent escalation.
“This wasn’t a normal deployment. It was truly no notice. Dudes’ lives are in a shit place back home because of how fast we had to leave,” one soldier from the brigade said.
Meanwhile, in Kuwait, the 1st Brigade of the Army’s 82nd Airborne hasn’t seen any outbreak thus far. One symptomatic soldier was kept in isolation recently, but his test came back negative.
Their entire deployment is a case study in how the consequences of the Trump administration’s bellicosity to Iran have now combined with the global spread of the novel coronavirus.
During the nearly two years after the administration chose to abandon the Iran nuclear deal in favor of its “Maximum Pressure” campaign of economic strangulation, Iran-backed militias in Iraq resumed their attacks on U.S. forces. In late December, Iran’s Kataib Hezbollah besieged the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, prompting Esper to order a battalion of the storied paratroopers to Iraq on New Year’s Eve, with the rest of the brigade following soon after. The deployment was an “an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities,” Esper said at the time.
Days later, a U.S. drone strike killed Iran’s external security chief and Iran fired missiles at U.S. positions in Iraq. The escalation leveled off before rising again earlier this month—even as all sides dealt with their own coronavirus crises.
The first battalion into Iraq from the brigade returned home in late February, before all the stop-movement orders, travel restrictions, and quarantine requirements. But the rest of the brigade, which specializes in rapid reaction to crises, is on ice. A soldier with the brigade told The Daily Beast that the uncertainty over when they’d return home—The Daily Beast is choosing not to report timeframes it’s been told—is one more frustration in a deployment that’s seen many.
The soldier noted that they all understood that their job is to deploy quickly–but there wasn’t much of a mission besides being ready if a shooting war broke out. “People are just getting frustrated because of how random, piecemeal [things are], and how many different things we’ve been told,” the service member said.
Faced with a situation they can’t control, the brigade, and the base it’s calling home for longer than expected, is adjusting as best they can to a different kind of crisis than the one it deployed to confront.
When the gym closed, soldiers improvised workout equipment from the ever-present sandbags and whatever else was heavy enough to lift. Training continues, but in smaller-unit groups so the soldiers can follow social-distancing practices. The same practices apply in the tents where they sleep, as bunks are spread out to the degree possible.
The Morale, Welfare, and Recreation facility, where servicemembers can get a paperback, movie, or videogame, has closed. The dining facility has shifted to carryout-only. Inevitably, the lines for it are long.
An email to an account for the brigade’s public-affairs officer was not immediately returned. On Facebook, the division commander, Army Maj. Gen. James J. Mingus, wrote on Wednesday that the elements of the 82nd deployed to the Mideast and South Asia are “training hard, maintaining readiness, and prepared to respond to any mission they are given… We will lead through this!”
“The biggest complaint,” the service member said, “remains just the uncertainty and frustration of being told something only for it to be canceled and superseded multiple times.”
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