A Marine infantry battalion and elements of a Marine air wing are still slated to kick off an upcoming exercise aboard Twentynine Palms, California — and its parent command says the training is “mission-essential training” despite concerns over COVID-19.
The nearly month-long integrated training exercises known as an ITX helps Marines hone skills in integrating aviation assets while training combined-arms maneuver warfare aboard the sprawling training center at Twentynine Palms.
The Camp Pendleton based 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, along with elements of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing are still expected to kick off the ITX, according to an emailed statement sent to Marine Corps Times Friday evening from I Marine Expeditionary Force.
“I Marine Expeditionary Force will continue mission-essential training and tasks as directed while taking every precaution to preserve and protect the force, our families and the neighboring communities who enable us to continue our mission of sustaining combat readiness and deployability,” I MEF said in an emailed statement.
There have been a number of concerns raised by Marines that these exercises place unnecessary risk to service members and the civilian population. Despite a domestic travel ban for DoD personnel that went into effect on March 16, the grunts of 3/1 will have to be transported to the training installation.
The COVID-19 virus has a mortality rate of roughly 1 percent. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told lawmakers in March that the virus was roughly ten times more lethal than the normal flu.
Twentynine Palms is only about 140 miles from Pendleton, but ensuring the Marines get up there while attempting to adhere to social distancing guidelines complicates efforts. And the distance between Pendlton and Twentynine Palms is still out of the 50 to 60 mile travel restriction placed on service members across a number of military installations.
Moreover, California is under a state-wide shelter in place order as the state reels from an explosion of COVID-19 cases. As of March 20, California has 1,006 positive COVID-19 cases and 19 deaths.
“We will continue to take measures to isolate affected personnel while providing ready and relevant forces for national defense,” I MEF told Marine Corps Times.
“Our Marines and Sailors are employing additional preventative measures such as increased cleaning of work spaces, limiting non-essential personnel, and adhering to the shelter in place order for California when not on duty to reduce the potential transmission of COVID-19,” I MEF said.
The ITX is the latest exercise to get approval to continue on despite concerns over COVID-19.
A large-scale air and ground integration exercise in Yuma, Arizona, involving nearly 4,000 Marines was deemed mission essential by the top Marines. Local residents have expressed concern that the exercise could spread COVID-19 across a population that is nearly 20 percent over the age of 60 — a vulnerable demographic for COVID-19.
A Marine aboard the Yuma air station has since tested positive for COVID-19. A Marine official says the individual was not participating in the weapons and tactics exercise.
But exercises are not the only problem, the Corps has also been less strict on tackling COVID-19 issues than the other services. The Navy and Air Force have shifted fitness tests and the Navy has laxed hair length grooming standards.
The Corps to date has not made any force-wide decision to postpone annual training requirements or approve relaxed grooming standards. The Commandant of the Marine Corps has given authority to commanding officers to temporarily postpone scheduled individual training events.
But that authority could put pressure on commanders to continue on with training while accepting known risks over fears canceling exercises and training could be frowned upon.
I MEF also stood up a task force and has helped build a medical and observation center to isolate and care for service members who are lab-tested positive for COVID-19. Those Marines and sailors who test positive will be isolated for 14 days to protect other service members and the local community.
The observation center was built in the 13 Area aboard Camp Pendleton.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.