After a nine-month deployment to the Middle East, military policemen from a Missouri National Guard company arrived at Ft. Bliss, Texas on Mar. 6 to demobilize and proceed home. They spent a week and a half moving freely around the sprawling base—until, hours before they were supposed to fly home, they were ordered into coronavirus quarantine.
It wasn’t just Ft. Bliss. A different National Guard unit returning from its own deployment entered quarantine at Ft. Hood, Texas on Sunday. But its quarantine didn’t seem to provide for social distancing. Pictures provided to The Daily Beast show soldiers from Ft. Hood—troops outside the quarantine and presumed to be uninfected—serving meals up close to those in the quarantine.
While the guardsmen question the point of their porous quarantines, the commands running those bases are scrambling to fix the problem. Both the initial disarray and the rapid corrections the bases are implementing are improvisational attempts at handling the wide-ranging disruption created by the novel coronavirus outbreak. Their collective experiences this week represent another inside indication into how the U.S. military is attempting to tackle a problem that it, like much of the country, did not anticipate dealing with.
The accounts and photographs in this story come from people familiar with what the quarantine looks like from the inside on condition of anonymity. After seeing reporting from The Daily Beast on alarming conditions within military quarantine for returning veterans, they are seeking to accelerate the military getting on top of a problem that is likely to intensify as more troops return from deployment and enter quarantine.
The Pentagon, in response to The Daily Beast’s reporting, has pledged to do better. Both bases contacted for this story, Fort Bliss and Fort Hood, have, over the past week, redoubled their efforts to make the quarantines safer and less burdensome for those undergoing it. Those efforts are acknowledged by The Daily Beast’s sources. Thus far, according to both the bases’ commands and people knowledgeable about both quarantines, no COVID-19 symptoms are on display.
Not all of the coronavirus concerns are the fault of either Bliss or Hood. When flying back from deployment through Kuwait on Mar. 14, about 150 Indiana National Guardsmen intermingled with other service members coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. They were asked to sign a quarantine document, shared with The Daily Beast, stipulating potential criminal penalties for violating it once they arrived at Fort Hood, Tex. “If you are assigned to barracks housing that has open bays or shared spaces, you may be assigned temporary lodging for the quarantine period,” it reads.
Similarly, a Mar. 11 memo from Alexis Lasselle Ross, who is acting as the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, instructs: “To the extent possible, implement social distancing, e.g., remain out of congregate settings, avoid mass gatherings, and maintain 6 feet or 2 meter distance from others when possible.” The next day, the military implemented mandatory quarantine conditions for soldiers returning from overseas deployment.
So the Indiana guardsmen were surprised, once they arrived at Fort Hood on Sunday evening, to be lodged in communal barracks, one for the unit’s 120 men and another for its 30 women. Each barracks has a communal latrine. Pictures shared with The Daily Beast show bunks that don’t appear to follow the social-distancing guidelines.
Indiana National Guard representatives referred questions to Fort Hood. Fort Hood officials, in a statement to The Daily Beast, confirmed that fewer than 200 soldiers are in quarantine. Those soldiers, the statement explained, “are residing in an open bay lodging and are maintained in groups by cohort and by aircraft arrivals to avoid cross contamination.”
That separation may not have been absolute, per one case reported to The Daily Beast. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, someone not part of the Indiana National Guard unit appeared at the barracks and remained there through the breakfast queue before being whisked away on a truck to a different location. Those familiar with the incident consider it a case of Fort Hood correcting a mistake, if an alarming one. Fort Hood officials have yet to respond to The Daily Beast’s question about the account.
The Indiana guardsmen have been permitted to gather within a perimeter outside the barracks, something no one considers problematic, behind a fence. But pictures shared with The Daily Beast show the guardsmen being served food by Fort Hood soldiers who are outside quarantine and interacting with those inside closer than the social-distancing rules advise. Those inside it congregate close together, too.
“Quarantine was broken their first night they arrived with the other soldiers serving them food. Fort Hood soldiers who either live on base or off base came in contact with every one of our soldiers and continue to do so multiple times a day,” a source familiar with the quarantine told The Daily Beast.
“Our goal is, and continues to be, to make quality of life the best we can and keep within the CDC guidelines," Fort Hood officials told The Daily Beast.
To that end, they’ve moved to make the quarantine as comfortable as such a thing can be. In addition to providing three regular hot meals, sanitation, and hygiene products, they’ve given the quarantined basketball hoops and balls, portable gym equipment, TVs, X-BOX 360s, movies, and games. Base medical professionals check soldiers daily, Fort Hood said, after initial screening on arrival.
Fort Bliss, where a soldier experiencing quarantine described insufficient food and lockdown conditions, has moved to make the quarantine more bearable, something The Daily Beast’s initial source has praised.
“During the initial 48 hours, quarantined service members raised issues regarding meals and outdoor recreation time. We are glad they raised these concerns, which allowed us the opportunity to address legitimate issues affecting their wellbeing,” Fort Bliss officials said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
Over the past week, Fort Bliss moved its quarantine from three standard barracks buildings to a site it prepared on a training area for mobilization and demobilization “that will allow more room and a better overall quality of life.” Beginning with soldiers arriving from deployment on Wednesday, Fort Bliss has, like Fort Hood, used an open configuration, but limited to 14 people in one area. The quarantine cohort, as of Thursday, is also larger: 387 soldiers, separated into arrival groups.
One unit, the 1175th Military Police (MP) company of the Missouri National Guard, arrived at Bliss on Mar. 6 to demobilize after a Mideast deployment. That was almost a week before the Pentagon’s quarantine order for soldiers returning home from deployment. Accordingly, the Missouri MPs moved about Fort Bliss freely, whether at the dining halls or the busy shopping areas.
But even after the Mar. 12 quarantine order, the MPs didn’t have their movements restricted. It wasn’t until late Tuesday, the day the Guard company finished its scheduled demobilization and shortly before they were set to board flights home to Missouri, that they received word they’d be placed in quarantine—but this quarantine was to last two days, not the full 14.
But the quarantine was not absolute. The MPs had access to a nearby chow hall used by non-quarantined soldiers. On Thursday, a source told The Daily Beast, the area where the MPs are housed had maintenance work done by civilians without masks or other protective gear.
“Either they don't know the unit is supposed to be under ‘quarantine’ or [the Fort Bliss demobilization organization] doesn't consider the unit to be an infection risk,” a source said.
“For soldiers who arrived prior to the quarantine order of March 12 we immediately restricted their movement to limit potential exposure. The 1175 MP Company's movement was limited to the use of their barracks and their assigned dining facility to collect ‘to go’ orders,” Fort Bliss officials said in a second statement to The Daily Beast.
Anna Friederich-Maggard, the public affairs director for the Missouri National Guard, told The Daily Beast on Friday afternoon that the MPs had been screened by medical personnel and were en route home.
Asked if she was concerned about the MPs encountering people at Bliss who were outside of quarantine, Friederich-Maggard replied, “We’re all concerned about that” and said the guardsmen would self-quarantine and self-monitor, if needed, once they return to Missouri.