The 82nd Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team and a company of Brazilian soldiers added a logistical twist to what are normally routine Joint Readiness Training Center rotations in Louisiana, but public health concerns are never far from field exercises these days.
As the exercise kicked off, an anonymous letter was published to social media and sent to a local newspaper raising concerns that 3rd Brigade was not taking coronavirus mitigation seriously enough and was ignoring an outbreak emerging during the exercise.
“Hundreds of soldiers that were and are being sent for the training exercise named JRTC, or Joint Readiness Training Center, are now battling a mass outbreak,” wrote the anonymous soldiers, who did not respond to requests for comment. “Soldiers are having to sleep amongst those that are infected and are not provided with a place to quarantine and isolate.”
Unit officials denied those allegations in a telephone interview with Army Times.
The COVID-19 positivity rate for the exercise is under 5 percent, officials said, and any soldiers who do catch the virus are sequestered to isolation barracks. All paratroopers were also tested for the virus prior to leaving and given the option to receive the vaccine, officials added.
The commander of the 82nd, Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, said in a statement responding to the letter that leaders at every rank are responsible for protecting their troops at all times.
“We do this in garrison, we do this in training events, and we will do this in combat if our nation calls,” Donahue said. “We continue to emphasize the importance of vaccinations for all populations at Fort Bragg to improve the health, safety, and welfare of our Paratroopers and their families.”
This JRTC rotation was a bit different than past ones. Rather than a simple administrative movement involving bus rides from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, soldiers were put on alert late in the evening on Jan. 27, assembled in their company areas, briefed and told to draw weapons, blank ammunition and food for three days, according to a unit release.
Then the troops drove to Charleston, South Carolina, an airfield they’re unaccustomed to, where they boarded aircraft brought in from bases across the country to static-line parachute onto a drop zone at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
The exercise reflects the 82nd’s Immediate Response Force model, which aims to deploy paratroopers worldwide within 18 hours of notification. The model was used for the first time last year as part of the Pentagon’s package of responses to tensions with Iran in January 2020.
“This exercise added some additional moving pieces, which added to the complexity of the event, but it was great in terms of challenging the organization and forcing us to adapt rather than going through a standard play that you can just do at Fort Bragg,” said Lt. Col. Eric Jnah, commander of 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Mask discipline “has been high” during the exercise, added Jnah, who jumped in with his battalion Monday night, and social distancing is practiced “as much as possible.” But the anonymous letter published on Instagram argued that those measures have not been taken seriously.
Army Times was sent a copy of the letter and reached out to the individuals who posted it but did not receive a response. The letter has since been reported by the Fayetteville Observer, which covers Fort Bragg and the surrounding area.
“Operating in a COVID environment does present challenges and there are some risks, but being in the military and doing the business we do also has inherent risks,” Jnah said. “And we look to mitigate those risks at every level.”
Now that the troops are on the ground in Louisiana, they’ll participate in 10 days of simulated combat operations, including live-fire exercises, and work with rotary assets like UH-60 Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks.
Brazilian paratroopers are playing the role of a coalition force aiding the American units during the simulated seizure of an airfield and follow-on missions. The letter did not mention the Brazilian personnel.
JRTC at Fort Polk is one of the Army’s three combat training centers that run brigade-level exercises.
The global pandemic temporarily halted rotations to the centers in the spring, but the Army restarted them with a set of precautions, including mass testing for the coronavirus and health screenings, during the summer. Still, soldiers have periodically raised concerns about poor pandemic planning during the exercises.
“Soldiers have been selected for this training exercise with no regard to their lives, and it has been stated by their chain of command that ’100% attendance is required to uphold the 82nd Airborne Division’s reputation,’” the anonymous paratroopers’ letter reads. “Soldiers stated they were told by their command that COVID-19 doesn’t exist on their airborne operation training exercises.”
Lt. Col. Mike Burns, a spokesman for the division, said his team disputes the letter, adding that virus mitigation measures recommended by the Center for Disease Control remain in place.
“Our positivity rate for this exercise is under 5 [percent], much lower than our surrounding communities,” Burns said.
Soldiers who have tested positive for the virus are placed in isolation barracks on Fort Polk and are seen by medical providers twice a day, according to Burns.
Jnah, who is named in the letter, flatly denied one of its more incendiary claims, which alleged that he required pregnant soldiers to deploy for the combat training center rotation.
“Absolutely not true that anyone deployed pregnant,” said Jnah, adding that the one pregnant soldier he was aware of in his battalion already gave birth several weeks ago. “We wouldn’t put anyone through that.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer