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Large-scale exercise in Arizona deemed mission essential by top Marine canceled over COVID-19

The remainder of a large-scale air and ground integration exercise in Yuma, Arizona, involving nearly 4,000 Marines has been canceled as COVID-19 continues to rapidly spread across the U.S., according to Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One.

The exercise known as the Weapons and Tactics Instructor course — which was deemed mission essential by Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger — was slated to run from March 8 through April 26.

Col. Steve Gillette, commanding officer of MAWTS-1, told Marine Corps Times in an emailed statement late Tuesday that the exercise had been suspended to “preserve the safety of our troops during this time.”

Gillette explained that WTI has concluded academics and that the remainder of the course had been suspended. Marines attending and in support of WTI will travel back to their duty stations.

That travel will take place during a Defense Department domestic travel ban implemented on March 16 that’s slated to run till May 11. The travel ban was imposed to stem the tide of COVID-19.

“The priority is a safe return for each Marine in order to protect the force. Special consideration and minor delays may be in place for Marines traveling outside the United States,” Gillette said.

The large-scale exercise was criticized by Marines and the local community as creating unnecessary risk amidst a viral pandemic that has killed about 20,000 worldwide.

Yuma has roughly 104,000 residents with nearly 20 percent of the population over the age of 60 — a sizable population especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus.

On March 20, the Corps confirmed at least one Marine had tested positive for COVID-19 aboard the Yuma air station. Lt. Adara Story, a spokeswoman for MAWTS-1, told Marine Corps Times the Marine who tested positive for the virus was not participating in the WTI exercise.

Concerned residents viewed a town hall March 20 to hear the latest updates about COVID-19 from city officials and Col. David Suggs, the commander of the Yuma air station.

Suggs attempted to quell some rumors floating around social media regarding large and crammed formations of Marines not abiding by social distancing guidelines. He also provided updated information related to Marines traveling from outside the country for WTI training.

The Yuma commander told the town hall that the base since March 16 has implemented a number of restrictions to help stem the spread of the virus.

As of March 16, no more than 50 Marines can congregate at one time. Suggs said he saw posts on social media showing large groups of Marines standing around in crowded groups.

One such photo was leaked to Marine Corps Times, which shows a large gathering of Marines on board the base not abiding by social distancing guidelines advocated by health professionals across the globe.

A Marine official, who spoke to Marine Corps Times on condition of anonymity, said the photo depicting the large gathering was snapped early March 20.

A large gathering of Marines aboard Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona. Health officials have recommended social distancing to stem the spread of COVID-19. (Courtesy photo)
A large gathering of Marines aboard Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona. Health officials have recommended social distancing to stem the spread of COVID-19. (Courtesy photo)

Suggs told the Yuma community that those formations are no longer authorized. Suggs also explained that the Yuma base has roughly 5,000 Marines, and getting word to junior officers presents a number of challenges.

“I can tell you now there are no meetings greater than 50,” Suggs said during the town hall.

As of March 16, Marines assigned to the base are not authorized to go to bars or restaurants in town. However, they are can get takeout or pickup orders. Suggs explained these restrictions were made to protect service members but also the community.

Suggs also said the Yuma air station has closed the gym and exchange, and only 50 Marines are allowed in the chow halls at any given time. He said the base has shut off TVs and WiFi at the dining facilities.

Travel outside the base beyond 50 miles requires the approval of a lieutenant colonel or colonel, Suggs explained.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 253 reported cases of COVID-19 across Arizona.

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