The soldiers were exhausted after a long night of fighting. They repelled a fierce enemy assault on their position that had involved enemy vehicles and a potential chemical weapons attack.
From their hillside position they had a scenic view of the ocean, but little time to enjoy it — there could be another attack at any moment.
The scenario was part of Exercise Lightning Forge, which tasks Hawaii-based members of the 25th Infantry Division’s 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team with protecting the fictional nation of Torbia from an invading army.
It was the Army’s first brigade-level training exercise in Hawaii since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, and comes at a time when the military is grappling with a spike in virus cases.
In the first few weeks of July, the military reported a 60% increase in COVID-19 infection rates across the armed services.
Senior Pentagon officials have been reluctant to release numbers on local COVID-19 infection rates at individual bases to the public, over concerns of advertising potential vulnerabilities. The military does share numbers with state officials.
Brigade surgeon Maj. Panfilo Delacruz said that since the pandemic began the brigade has had only three cases, including both soldiers and family members.
“In all instances, they have been travel-related from the mainland,” he said. “That helped us when we came here to Lightning Forge. Our COVID footprint was already low and it was already controlled.”
However, they’re still taking the threat of infection seriously.
The brigade is following local guidelines to maintain 6 feet of social distancing when possible, said brigade commander Col. David Mayo. Most of the time when soldiers can’t maintain distance, it’s because they are in tents and command centers — at which point, masks are required. Masks are often worn outside as well.
In the field where soldiers are doing strenuous physical activities, they usually aren’t wearing masks, though each of them is carrying at least one.
It’s “part of our uniform before coming out here. You have a face mask, you had to have hand sanitizer,” said Cpl. Ashley Griffith, one of the brigade’s medics.
Most field tactics already discourage troops from bunching up to avoid being targets.
“Generally speaking, we should be operating in a distributed manner anyways,” Mayo said. “I mean, that’s the tactically correct approach.”
Griffith said that the realities of training mean spending days at a time with fellow soldiers, and much of what they do — particularly when it comes to her and her fellow medics — can require close proximity and physical contact.
“You have to try to maintain the distance, (but) it’s kind of hard when you’re in a truck together, evacuating people and stuff like that,” she said. “As far as training, I don’t think anything has really changed. We’re still doing the same training. We just have higher levels of precaution.”
During the training, five soldiers began exhibiting possible symptoms.
“We have a good process in place. We have rapid turnaround time from the time we test the soldier to when we get the results so that we have real quick, decisive measures taking place if that person has COVID,” Delacruz said. “Luckily for us, the five soldiers that we tested for COVID have all been negative.”
A company of Thai Royal Army soldiers is also in Hawaii for Lightning Forge. Before the exercise, the Thai troops quarantined at the Schofield Barracks. From there, the brigade and other units attached for the exercise — roughly 5,500 troops — went straight to the field and have been kept in what they call a “training bubble.” No one comes in or out.
Lightning Forge is a precursor to the brigade’s upcoming deployment to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana this fall.
That training is to renew the brigade’s certifications to prove that the unit is ready to deploy to a conflict zone. When it goes, the same company of Thai troops training with them this month will go with them.
The emphasis of the training at Lightning Forge is large scale battles against a “near-peer adversary” — how the military describes opponents with similar equipment and capabilities. It’s a shift from the counterinsurgency training soldiers have gotten for the last two decades as they played a deadly game of cat and mouse against militant groups in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones.
Battalion commander Lt. Col. Rick Turner said that it’s usually the job of older, more experienced soldiers to pass their knowledge down to young soldiers, but he admits many older soldiers have spent years fighting insurgents and have little experience fighting the sorts of battles they are now training for.
“Our young soldiers just came into the Army a few years ago, so they haven’t developed any ‘bad habits’ or any sort of preference for one or the other,” Turner said. “The guys that then have trouble transitioning are really guys like me.”
Though no one says it outright at Lightning Forge, the “near-peer” adversary that U.S. military planners are most concerned with is China. This week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected Beijing’s claims to resources and trade routes in the South China Sea calling them, “completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.”
The COVID-19 crisis hasn’t slowed global conflicts. Over the past months, China has tightened its grip on Hong Kong, repeatedly flown fighter jets into Taiwanese air space and Chinese and Indian troops are engaged in a tense border standoff after a bloody confrontation between the two armies in June that left 20 Indian troops dead.
“If we aren’t taking full advantage of that opportunity to build a lethal and ready force that’s available when the nation calls, then we aren’t doing our due diligence,” Mayo said.
It’s not clear how long the pandemic will last, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the 25th Infantry Division could mobilize for a real world deployment with combat in the midst of the pandemic.
Under that scenario, maintaining a bubble for soldiers would be much harder in the chaos of real combat. But Delacruz said that he sees no reason why they couldn’t apply the lessons of training during the pandemic to fighting during the pandemic.
“We will take the lessons learned that we have taken from this exercise and apply it forward until this COVID threat is mitigated in full,” Delacruz said.
The fighting portion of the exercise concluded on Saturday, but soldiers will remain afterward to clean up the training area and account for their equipment.
“It’s different,” said Sgt. Adam Harris as he scanned the horizon from a foxhole. While not wearing a mask at that moment, carrying it and hand sanitizer are a constant reminder of the pandemic.
He said the pandemic’s broader impact is on the minds of some soldiers as they train. But when it comes to the tactics and training itself in the field, Harris said that for him it’s relatively unchanged.
“We’ve still got to get out here, we’ve still got to train hard,” said Harris. “So it is what it is.”
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