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Pentagon rejects proposals from military officials to stop training new recruits amid coronavirus response

Recruits stand in formation at the Navy's recruit training center in Great Lakes, Ill., in February. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Spencer Fling/Released) (Petty Officer 1st Class Spencer Fling/U.S. Navy Recruit Training Comma)

The Pentagon has rejected proposals from senior U.S. military officials to temporarily halt sending new recruits to training amid the coronavirus pandemic, deciding that the process must continue to avoid harming the military, according to a planning document and three defense officials.

The plans would have paused the training of thousands of new recruits who join the military each month and marked a major widening in the Defense Department’s attempt to stop infection. On Friday night, the Pentagon cut virtually all domestic travel for the next eight weeks but said that new recruit training would continue.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper met with the service secretaries and top officers on Monday to talk about training, said the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Jonathan Rath Hoffman.

“A decision was made to continue with training missions while taking precautionary measures to limit any possible spread,” Hoffman said. "This will be continuously evaluated to ensure mission-critical requirements are met and our people are kept safe.”

The decision came after discussions over the weekend about how to proceed in facilities that are notoriously susceptible to disease outbreaks due to the proximity in which recruits live and train.

Army officials considered a 30-day freeze on sending additional recruits to basic training. Navy officials, citing the Army’s idea, suggested the idea of a “hybrid” plan, in which new recruits would stop reporting but recruits who already had began training would finish, according to the planning document, which was drafted within the Navy and obtained by The Washington Post.

Other senior military officials raised concerns about the negative effects that stopping training could have as other service members leave active duty, said two defense officials, who like some others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The Navy plan raised the possibility that the service might need to consider involuntarily keeping some current sailors on active duty through a policy like “stop loss,” but it was rejected, the officials said.

Hoffman, in a news briefing Monday, alluded to the discussion, suggesting that a change might be coming, seemingly before the idea was scuttled.

“We are taking a look at the training programs given the size of those programs and the impact a major delay on training could have,” Hoffman told reporters at the Pentagon. “We’re looking at that, and may have some update on that in the near future.”

The decision to continue training recruits comes as the number of National Guardsmen involved in the U.S. response to the pandemic continues to multiply. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R.) announced on Monday that he was activating 1,000 guardsmen to respond to the virus’s spread in his state and notifying an additional 1,200 Guard members that they might also be needed.

Other states also have activated Guard members, including New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D.) has directed them to assist in finding facilities that can be converted into makeshift hospitals.

The National Guard members involved in the response to disease are helping to establish drive-through testing facilities, providing support in state emergency operations centers and disinfecting public areas, said April Cunningham, a National Guard Bureau spokeswoman.

Hoffman and Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, a doctor on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, told reporters that the Defense Department is assessing a variety of options to offer more assistance as the virus spreads. But there are limitations, they said.

Friedrichs said that one challenge to a mobilization of medical personnel within the National Guard and reserve military units is that many of the members involved already have civilian jobs in medicine.

“That directly impacts the community where they work,” he said. “That’s the tradeoff, whether it’s a natural disaster or the coronavirus or anything else.”

Friedrichs said that the Defense Department has 36 hospitals within the United States that primarily treats U.S. service members and their families. But many of them are relatively small.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, speaking during a Democratic presidential debate on Sunday, suggested that the U.S. military could be used to build field hospitals to treat patients, citing U.S. involvement in the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014.

Friedrichs acknowledged those “tent hospitals” still exist and vary in size, but said they are not designed to treat diseases.

“The challenge is, they’re designed to treat combat patients and trauma casualties,” he said. “What we’re trying to be very careful of is not over-promising. We want to be factual about what we have.”

The general added that while dozens of positive cases of coronavirus have been discovered in Afghanistan, the U.S. military does not have the ability to test deployed service members for it there. Instead, patients are swabbed for samples, which are tested at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

As of Monday, no U.S. service member in Afghanistan has tested positive for the virus, Hoffman said.