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.
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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Kevin Knodell covers the military and veterans in Hawaii and the greater Pacific for Civil Beat as a corps member for Report For America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms.