LITTLE ROCK, Ark.- As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to spike in Arkansas, thousands of Army National Guard Soldiers are being told it’s safe for them to come together for training.
On July 4, about 4,300 troops from both in and out of state, will meet at Fort Chaffee in West Arkansas. They’ll stay there for a three-week combat training.
Several soldiers, whose identities are being kept hidden over fear they’ll be retaliated against, say they’re concerned the training will jeopardize their health.
One wrote, “I am very fearful for my soldiers to attend this training.” They went on to say, “we know we have not secured enough PPE to follow the recommend guidelines.”
The National Guard sent a plan called the “COVID-19 Risk Mitigation Report” to the Arkansas Department of Health. It details what will be done to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and what steps will be taken if a soldier tests positive.
Doctors at the Health Department okayed the plan, and when questioned on Thursday said it includes sufficient isolation of troops.
“Yes, there is an elevated risk for transmission of COVID-19,” said Col. Jonathan Stubbs of the 39th Brigade Combat Team. “Our citizens, our Governor, our President, and the national command authority, expects our army to be ready so by extension the 39th Brigade Combat Team.”
The plan outlines what will happen when soldiers arrive at training. It says they’ll be required to wear a mask and then go through a temperature check and symptom screening. If they pass that they’ll go into training in groups capped at 50 people and continue daily health screenings.
According to the plan, if a soldier shows symptoms, they’ll be isolated and tested.
“The condition and the environment, it is what it is. Just like in combat the conditions are never optimal, you can never alleviate all the risk,” Col. Stubbs explained.
He says there have been no issues securing PPE for soldiers and medical staff.
“We’re looking to provide every soldier with two cloth masks,” Col. Stubbs said and added that they’re also working to secure disposable masks for soldiers as well.
If a soldier tests positive, Col. Stubbs explained how they’ll be covered.
“We take care of our own, so the soldier will remain on orders, will continue to get paid,” he said.
The plan does not include widespread testing before and after training, which is what has one soldier’s wife concerned. Her identity is concealed to protect her husband.
“I think it’s completely naive to think that only the people that are symptomatic should be tested,” she said. “If you’re spending all this money, all this time to train these soldiers you need to take care of them.”
Col. Stubbs also explained that leaders will work with soldiers on a case-by-case basis if they or a family member they live with are considered high risk for COVID-19.
We asked Governor Asa Hutchinson about the training and he said he’s monitoring it.
“We want to continue to look at that, that is not just a decision by the state of Arkansas, this is a decision by the National Guard Bureau in Washington,” the Governor added.
Still one soldier tells us they’re, “worried the virus will travel home and spread to families.”
Col. Stubbs hopes masks combined with daily screening, sanitizing, and distance will ultimately keep everyone safe.
“I really firmly believe that we have a plan that will safeguard our soldiers and by extension their family members,” he said.
The National Guard has used virtual training but stresses these types of combat drills need to happen in person.