Five thousand soldiers from the Schofield Barracks-based 25th Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade are currently working to renew their certification to deploy at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

However, the process of training and deploying in the COVID-19 era has changed. It’s been a challenge for local military planners and strained relations between the military and Hawaii residents suspicious of the Pentagon’s policy of keeping military infection rates secret in the state, but not elsewhere.

“Every one of the soldiers that came out, of those 5,000, had to have a negative test,” said Col. Jeffrey VanAntwerp, the divisions’s new deputy commander of operations, in a video call from the field in Louisiana.

He acknowledged that a very small number, “less than 1%,” tested positive before the unit flew out. The Army ordered all those who tested positive into quarantine for 14 days and tested again. They were not allowed to leave quarantine until testing negative.

Last week Hawaii rolled out quarantine exemptions for tourists and residents coming into the state who test negative prior to arrival. All the soldiers training in Louisiana will get a test before returning to Hawaii, but VanAntwerp said all will still quarantine when they return.

“Bottom line, we take it super seriously. We do not want to be the reason that the risk to the population in Hawaii increases,” he said.

2nd Lt. Johnathan Molnar, a medical officer with C Company, 225th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, talks about medical operations with Indonesian Army 1st Lt. George Tirtadihatmo, a medical doctor with Headquarters Company, 515th Raider Infantry Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division and Indonesian Army Chief Sgt. Masrul, a combat medic with 3rd Field Medical Company, 2nd Medical Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division during an exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, Oct. 16, 2020. The JRTC exercise is a capstone training event that allows 2nd Brigade to achieve certification for worldwide deployment while building interoperability with key allies in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Ezra Camarena, 28th Public Affairs Detachment)
2nd Lt. Johnathan Molnar, a medical officer, center, talks to Indonesian Army medical troops during training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Ezra Camarena/U.S. Army/2020

The soldiers are joined by Thai and Indonesian troops as part of the Army’s Pacific Pathways Program. This week Indonesia signed an agreement to deepen military and trade ties with the United States. Thai troops also trained this summer with the 2nd Brigade during Exercise Lightning Forge — the Army’s first large-scale exercise in Hawaii during the pandemic. 

Several tested positive when they returned to Thailand from Hawaii, leading the country’s army to announce it would suspend all overseas training. But Thai leaders apparently elected to resume training with the Americans.

VanAntwerp said that both Thai and Indonesian troops were a welcome addition, as both countries are important military and trade partners. “We’re not going to fight any war by ourselves, you know, a big part of our strength is dependent upon our partnerships and our alliances,” he said.

VanAntwerp said that COVID-19 mitigation is a top priority and so far no troops have tested positive in the field and none require isolation for symptoms.

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