When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March, the Pentagon ordered a global halt in movement for U.S. military forces, upending deployments around the globe with cancellations for some units and extensions for others.
Several Hawaii-based members of the Army’s 25th Infantry were training in Thailand with local forces. Much of the training became modified, with masks and considerably more distancing. When they returned to Hawaii at the end of the training, commanders ordered extra precautions.
The soldiers quarantined in Thailand, before boarding their flight home, had their temperatures taken onboard the flight and quarantined again upon their arrival back in Hawaii. In the end, none of the returning soldiers reported any symptoms. It was a long, exhausting ordeal as the soldiers came home to a country much different than the one they had left.
The global pandemic has significantly changed how the military operates around the world and in Hawaii, which is home to more than 100,000 troops, their families and dependents.
The military has grown more tight lipped about the number of COVID-19 infections among its ranks locally, while at the same time limiting some of its activities. And there is still confusion for some Hawaii residents trying to make sense of the military’s policies.
At military bases across the islands, gyms remain closed and food is takeout only. Guards checking IDs at the gates wear masks and much more work is being conducted remotely. Training is gradually getting back on track, but it in many cases looks very different than before.
The bi-annual RIMPAC, the largest naval exercise in the world, will be held entirely offshore this year. In previous years, sailors from the world’s navies descended on Honolulu for shore visits, enjoying the city’s nightlife in a boon for the hospitality industry.
Navy officials told Civil Beat that while some ships might enter Pearl Harbor for refueling, no personnel will come ashore. The exercise is likely to be much smaller than previous years and it’s unclear how many of the world’s navies will actually attend this year.
During a March 21 Facebook town hall, U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii commander Col. Tom Barrett told community members that the Army had four confirmed cases of the virus in Hawaii and that he planned to “continue to be as transparent as possible” and “provide the most current number of cases during these community updates.”
But the Army’s last update was on March 26 — when the tally in Hawaii was at 12. Orders came down from the Pentagon to stop reporting numbers publicly on the local level. Each service branch now provides the total numbers of infections, but does not release public information on which units or locations have infections except in specific circumstances.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper argued that the military required a degree of secrecy for the sake of security and to prevent revealing vulnerabilities to adversaries. Esper told Reuters that the military is “not going to disaggregate numbers because it could reveal information about where we may be affected at a higher rate than maybe some other places.”
While the military does not publicly release information on infections in Hawaii, it does share that information with state officials. When the state of Hawaii shares infection numbers, that total includes military members and their families residing in the islands.
In a few incidents, the pandemic has highlighted the sometimes fraught relationship between Hawaii residents and service members stationed in the islands.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, North Shore residents complained to authorities about large parties at Kaena Point State Park and Waimea Bay. A large portion of those in attendance were believed to be military members and the gatherings were promoted widely on social media.
At Kaena Point, officers with the Department of Land and Natural Resources and Honolulu police dispersed a crowd of about 200 people late Sunday night and early Monday morning. The officers noted evidence that the group had been much larger before they arrived.
Police made the partiers clean up garbage, but issued no criminal citations. Honolulu City Council member and mayoral candidate Kymberly Pine wrote a letter to USINDOPACOM commander Adm. Philp Davidson expressing anger about allegations of troops attending the parties.
“Such attendance was unacceptable behavior by military personnel. I ask you to enforce serious reprimands on any and all military personnel who violated quarantine rules and regulations,” Pine wrote. “Residents of Hawai‘i have sacrificed a great deal to ‘flatten the curve’ and in one weekend an illegal gathering risked further sacrifice and another potential shut-down.”
Pine is married to a Navy officer and her grandfather served in the Coast Guard during the attack at Pearl Harbor. She said her close ties to the military made her particularly angry that service members reportedly made up a large portion of the partiers.
Pine said that the parties not only violated the state’s COVID-19 safety guidelines, but showed a complete disregard for both the environment and local community as partiers littered and burned bonfires. “It was really just such a blatant example of disrespect,” Pine said.
Davidson sent a letter to Pine in response, writing “I share your concerns that these restrictions have been disregarded and assure you that a review of this weekend’s incidents will be conducted and appropriate actions taken.”
Different military commands have launched their own investigations of the Memorial Day parties. Because police issued no criminal citations they have little evidence to go on and it’s unclear which services troops in attendance belonged to. Investigators have been combing social media posts to find attendees, but many have already deleted their posts.
A quarantine exemption for traveling family members of military personnel in Hawaii also prompted concerns and confusion in Hawaii.
On May 29, Hawaii National Guard Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, who is leading the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as the head of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, issued a memo clarifying that military-affiliated individuals entering the state on orders are exempt from the mandatory quarantine.
The memo stated that “although not explicitly required,” state authorities request that troops traveling on official business continue following state guidelines. Hara also added, “I am authorizing family members that move to Hawaii, as part of a permanent change of station (PCS), also be designated as essential travel and not subjected to the 14-day self-quarantine.”
The memo also stated that family members not listed on PCS orders and military members not traveling on official orders will be subject to Hawaii’s mandatory self-quarantine order.
Pine wrote a letter to Hara expressing concern about the exemption.
“For the state to simply request that these family members abide by the 14-day stay-at-home guidelines, is insufficient,” Pine wrote to Hara. “I ask you to reconsider your blanket order and instead, institute exemptions only following required COVID testing, only under strict observation and guidance and for special cases only.”
Pine said she received no response from Hara. She told Civil Beat that she was particularly concerned with the timing of the memo, as it came out just after the parties on the North Shore.
“The timing was just terrible. It really soured relations between the community and the military,” she said. “It looks like special treatment for a certain population.”
She noted she found the memo particularly confusing because all the military service members and families she represents have all received strict guidance from their commanders to continue abiding by the rules — including her and her husband.
“The state of Hawaii has granted us an exemption, but we’re not using it,” said Capt. John Gay, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. Other military officials that spoke to Civil Beat admitted that the memo surprised them and that they are still instructing incoming families to strictly abide by the quarantine. Some expressed worry that the memo created a false impression of unrestricted movement.
Hawaii Department of Defense spokesman Jeff Hickman said that the exemption for military families was granted in response to a request from the Coast Guard.
“We don’t have bases like the other services,” said Chief Petty Officer Sara Muir, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard’s District 14, which includes Hawaii and all the U.S. Pacific Territories. She explained that the Coast Guard’s much smaller facilities make it harder for the branch to settle newly arrived families than the other services.
Due to limited facilities, Coast Guard members and families often rely more on hotels or staying with friends and family members. While the other service branches house most of their dependents on or near large bases on Oahu, some Coast Guard personnel and families find themselves posted at more remote facilities on the other islands where food and pharmacy delivery services may be limited or unavailable.
The Coast Guard’s operations are also different from many of the other branches. Between patrols, search and rescue operations, port inspection operations and fishery protection they have a huge workload with a relatively small footprint — and much of its work can’t be done remotely.
“We are a small force and often do not have the redundancy in our ranks to absorb multiple extended absences,” said Muir.
After consulting with Hara, District 14 commander Rear Adm. Kevin Lunday signed a Restriction of Movement Order on May 22 that would apply to Coast Guard families when they arrive in Hawaii. Muir said the order “restricts them to their assigned lodging with allowances for limited movements.”
Coast Guard service members and dependents are allowed to go to grocery stores and pharmacies for food and medicine, but are still expected to wear masks and observe state guidelines on social distancing.
Muir stressed that Coast Guard families are still under strict orders not to engage in recreational activities during quarantine.
“They’re not going to the beach,” she said.
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