His second tour in Afghanistan over, Henry Chinaski stepped off a plane on Sunday not into the waiting arms of his family, but the U.S. Army. Along with three other soldiers in a 15-by-15 foot room he likens to a prison cell, Chinaski has spent the past three days in quarantine as a precautionary measure against the coronavirus.
Except Chinaski and his fellow soldiers aren’t tested for COVID-19. Medics come by once a day, take their temperatures, and move on. Until Tuesday, they weren’t even allowed to leave their room at Fort Bliss — not to exercise or even just enjoy a gulp of fresh El Paso air after the crucible of Afghanistan. They get two meals a day, two bottles of water, one bathroom between them and no further information about what they’re supposed to do during their 14-day stay in quarantine.
“This is the most dysfunctional Army operation I’ve ever seen in nearly 17 years of service,” Chinaski tells The Daily Beast via text. (Henry Chinaski, as fans of Charles Bukowski will have spotted, is a pseudonym. The Daily Beast has independently verified his identity.)
Chinaski is part of the first wave of troops put into quarantine after returning from Afghanistan and other elevated-risk locations, a decision meant to stymie the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. Military quarantines, said to be motivated by an abundance of caution, are also taking place at Fort Bragg, Fort Gordon, and even undisclosed locations. Chinanski’s experience is among the first outsiders have gotten into the realities of military life under quarantine.
“Prisoners receive better care and conditions than that which we are experiencing at Fort Bliss,” said Chinaski. “The Army was not prepared, nor equipped to deal with this quarantine instruction and it has been implemented very poorly.”
According to Chinaski, he’s one of 169 soldiers and Defense Department civilian employees quarantined at Bliss. They’re active-duty soldiers and reservists deployed to various Mideast combat zones for tours of six months to a year. Neither he nor anyone on his flight home displayed Coronavirus symptoms, though the world is learning that is no guarantee.
The Army’s served them quarantine breakfasts of canned tuna and tortillas. A picture Chinaski sent to The Daily Beast of a styrofoam container with his rations showed a scoop of scrambled eggs, potatoes, and two halves of a sausage.
About the only thing occupying Chinaski’s time is his phone. He’s been able to notify his family that he’s OK and stuck on Bliss. Since officers on the base aren’t permitting the quarantined soldiers access to material from the Morale Welfare and Recreation services — movies, paperbacks, games and other entertainment to pass Army downtime — he’s playing chess on his phone between watching Hulu and Netflix and listening to audiobooks. (In his queue: Tolkien, William Gibson, and Steve Coll’s two Afghanistan books, Ghost Wars and Directorate S.)
Outside of that, Chinaski has little else to do besides attempt some in-room lunges, pushups and sit-ups. On Tuesday, he texted, they got 20 minutes of yard time. Their senses of humor are keeping them going, but the frustrations are mounting as the quarantine drags on.
“The Army was not prepared, nor equipped, to deal with this quarantine instruction and it has been implemented very poorly,” he said.
Contacted by The Daily Beast, Army officials at Fort Bliss said, “The health and safety of our service members is our top priority. We're aware of concerns regarding quarantine conditions. We take these concerns seriously and are looking into them. The quarantine site is new for all service members who are redeploying from overseas and we continue to build capacity at each site on Fort Bliss.”
When asked about efforts to remedy the conditions described by Chinaski, no reply was returned to The Daily Beast. Chinaski said on Monday that he has not seen any indications that Army officials at Fort Bliss are working to improve conditions while soldiers are in quarantine.
“They are just running up and down the hallways, yelling at us like we are basic trainees,” said Chinaski. “It took over 12 hours for one soldier to get medical treatment for a back spasm.”
He added: “They are only concerned with the coronavirus and nothing else. There is no sustainment plan. No medical plan. Senior leaders are nowhere to be seen or to answer questions. We have colonels and chief warrant officers, down to privates in quarantine and there is no respect from the cadre from 1st Armored Division.”
As Americans come to terms with severe disruptions to everyday life amid conflicting signals from the Trump administration about the coronavirus, the Army has been scrambling to address the crisis in the face of a financial shortfall.
Last week, The Daily Beast reported that the service’s response to the coronavirus outbreak was short on funding by almost $1 billion, according to a document provided by a Defense Department official.
The document, marked unclassified but for official use only, was a part of a brief given to senior Army leaders last Thursday by the assistant secretary of the Army for financial management and comptroller, the Army’s primary office for fiscal matters.
The Defense Department said Monday that the agency has limited capabilities to aid the public health care system as coronavirus threatens to overwhelm it.
“What we are trying to be very careful about is not overpromising,” Joint Staff Surgeon General Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs said at the Pentagon Monday. “We want to be factual about what we have. Our fixed facilities are designed to the force that we have. They are not thousand-bed medical centers all over the United States. They are, for the most part, small community hospitals.”
Friedrichs said the Defense Department can build hospital tents and move people to naval ships. But neither of those options are designed for treating infectious diseases, as they focus on treating trauma patients.
“The challenge is if we build a 200-bed or a 25-bed trauma hospital to take care of people with coronavirus, that’s not really a great solution to the coronavirus challenge,” said Friedrichs. “We don’t have any 500-bed hospitals designed for infectious disease outbreaks. That does not exist in the inventory.”
Another document obtained by The Daily Beast shows Army quarantine options around the United States, Italy and South Korea. The document was also a part of the brief given to Army officials last week.
Between the Defense Department and state-owned Army National Guard units, military planners identified 12,239 rooms on military land with individual bathrooms that can be shared between males and females. The rooms are also located within one hour of a civilian medical facility, according to the document.
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper visited the U.S. Army’s top biological-defense laboratory at Fort Detrick, but confirmed the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases is still 12 to 18 months away from any COVID-19 vaccine.
As an immediate response to the spread of the virus, Esper told reporters he was releasing from military stocks up to 5 million N95 respirator masks for the Department of Health and Human Services to distribute, as well as 2000 deployable ventilators. Some 15o0 National Guardsmen are active across 18 states, he said, but decisions on federalizing them carry the trade-off of pulling medical personnel out of their civilian functions.
“I recognize our decisions impact servicemembers and their families, and I want them to know we are all in this together,” Esper said.
Inside his cramped room at Fort Bliss, Chinaski has a different takeaway.
“This is no way to treat soldiers returning from war,” he said, “and it has undoubtedly changed my view of remaining in the U.S. military following this deployment.”
— with additional reporting by Adam Rawnsley