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Four Air Force recruits have contracted coronavirus as service preps to open second basic training site

Air Force basic military trainees of the 326th Training Squadron receive the first operational camouflage pattern uniforms during initial issue Oct. 2, 2019, at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

SARAYUTH PINTHONG/U.S. AIR FORCE

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 30, 2020

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WASHINGTON — The Air Force halted sending new recruits to basic training this week in an effort to ensure safety for trainees and instructors amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has sickened four individuals in the service’s initial training program, officials said Monday.

The pause is only expected to last one week and will allow the service to clean facilities and rest its instruction cadre at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, the service’s home for its basic military training, said Col. Jeffrey McLemore, the vice commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service. The halt comes as the service plans to open a second site for basic training temporarily to allow trainees more physical space to follow social distancing policies meant to slow the virus’ spread.

Air Force Maj. Gen. John DeGoes, the commander of the San Antonio-based 59th Medical Wing, described the four cases as isolated events that did not appear to threaten others at Lackland. The infected recruits have been isolated from others and are experiencing only minor symptoms, he said.

Three of the recruits appear to have contracted the disease before shipping to basic training. The fourth individual likely contracted the disease from one of the others — the first individual to test positive March 18 for the virus — while traveling to basic training together, DeGoes told reporters Monday in a phone briefing. This month, the Air Force instituted a movement restriction policy for new recruits, in which 40-person groups flew to Lackland together and have been segregated from other individuals for their first two weeks at the base in an effort to limit the spread of the disease.

Service officials have said continuing to train recruits is essential for the Air Force to complete its global missions. Maj. Gen. Andrea Tullos, the commander of 2nd Air Force, said the service must strike a “delicate balance” in training new airmen and helping stop the fast-spreading virus, which the Pentagon said Monday has infected more than 1,000 members of the Defense Department community.

“Quite simply it’s because we are our nation’s 9-1-1,” Tullos said Monday. “When the nation needs us, we answer the call … [and] we have a responsibility to be able to continue to generate the forces for our nation to win the fight.”

To date, all four military services with Pentagon-controlled training have reported recruits who have tested positive for the virus. The services have continued their initial entrance training programs, though some of them have made adjustments. The Army, for example, has shipped about 50% fewer recruits than normal to basic combat training. And, the Marine Corps on Monday announced it would pause sending recruits to its legendary Parris Island Recruit Depot in South Carolina for at least one week.

Like the Army, the Air Force is sending fewer recruits to basic training amid the deepening crisis. But the service also elected to send a class of 60 recruits to Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., for a shortened basic training class at the base on the state’s coast.

Those recruits will arrive at Keesler on April 7 and conduct basic training in six weeks. Air Force basic typically lasts 8.5 weeks. Tullos said recruits who train at Keesler will receive the same instruction as ones at Lackland at a slightly quicker pace.

“The airmen we produce at Keesler will meet the same … training objectives as the airmen that we produce at Lackland,” she said. “At the end of the day the airman that comes out and marches across the parade field [at Keesler] is going to be the same quality airman we deliver to our commanders.”

The initial 60 recruits will be the only class sent to Keesler until they complete training, Tullos said. Service officials will study the class as it moves through training and decide later whether additional classes will be sent to Keesler for basic training.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC
 

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