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Soldiers return early from Southeast Asian exercises over COVID-19 concerns, with more adjustments expected

Soldiers in Thailand as part of the Army’s Pacific Pathways program are returning home this week to get ahead of the growing coronavirus pandemic in the region.

The roughly 1,350 soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division were originally scheduled to return to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, in May. The next Pacific Pathways iteration planned to train in the Philippines this spring has also been delayed due to the pandemic.

Those returning this week will undergo screening prior to leaving Thailand on a series of charter flights and will be screened again when they arrive at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, but there have yet to be any positive COVID-19 cases among the soldiers, said U.S. Army Pacific spokesman Col. Derrick W. Cheng.

“Leadership adjusted the timeline of the exercise based on an assessment that the unit had achieved its initial training objectives and with obvious consideration to the evolving environment that COVID-19 presented, not just for Thailand, but throughout Indo-Pacific region," Cheng said in a statement to Army Times. "Even with the adjusted timeline, this year’s Hanuman Guardian is the longest iteration of the exercise ever conducted.”

Medical personnel are screening returning troops through social distancing, temperature checks and questionnaires, though none are exhibiting symptoms at this point. When the soldiers return, they’ll still have to enter 14-day quarantines. Those will largely mirror quarantines conducted at other Army posts for soldiers returning from overseas exercises and deployments.

Hawaii-based soldiers who live in barracks will quarantine there, while those who have their own homes can return to those residences and remain in place for the two-week period. Medical personnel will monitor them in quarantine, as well, Cheng said.

If a soldier does not want to quarantine at their own home, possibly due to an immunocompromised family member, barracks will be made available for them, he added.

Thailand has reported roughly 2,500 people testing positive for COVID-19 so far. Several U.S. soldiers who had a mix of fevers and respiratory symptoms common with COVID-19 were previously placed in patient hold facilities for monitoring, 25th ID spokesman Lt. Col. Adam Hallmark told Army Times in early April. One soldier was ultimately tested at a Thai medical facility, but was found to be negative for the virus, Hallmark said.

Pacific Pathways was one program the Army secretary and chief of staff recently said they would like to expand to court more partners in Asia as part of a larger Pentagon strategy aimed at China.

The Pacific Pathways iteration returning next week was the first of the year. The second iteration start date was intended to coincide with Exercise Balikatan 2020 in the Philippines on May 4. However, that was cancelled in late March by U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

“With the COVID situation, different countries are adjusting their mil-to-mil activities, to include those exercises,” Cheng said. “We’re adjusting along with everybody else — the regional militaries — on what the rest of the year is going to look like.”

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