Like countless parents before her, LaTasha Webber worried about her 17-year-old after she signed an age waiver allowing him to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. Her son, Charlie Jennings, left for boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina on Feb. 24, following in the footsteps of his father, who was also a Marine.
The United States had already confirmed its first cases of the novel coronavirus, but President Trump had not yet declared the pandemic a national emergency. The virus didn’t top Webber’s list of concerns until last month when she heard reports of an outbreak at the base. “I kind of freaked out,” she said. “Oh my gosh, why are they still sending people over there knowing it could start spreading once they send new recruits?”
The outbreak prompted Parris Island to stop accepting new recruits on March 30, as it figured out how it was going to train future Marines under the limitations imposed by the coronavirus, which has infected more than 900,000 Americans to date. The problem is one faced by the entire military, which continues to grapple with maintaining a combat-ready force while also weighing the possibility of infection — a risk raised by the confined spaces and close contact that are standard for many units.
On Monday, Parris Island resumed its intake of new recruits as part of a retooled Marine-making system. Routines that are meant to place recruits under extreme duress — such as forcing recruits to quickly shower and eat meals in large groups — have been adjusted to follow social distancing rules. Some training events, like martial arts classes, have been moved to later in the training timeline, or about 30 days after recruits arrive at Parris Island, according to a spokesman, Capt. Bryan McDonnell. He said that while the Marine Corps is taking precautions to protect new arrivals, “they will experience the same training all Marines before them have undergone.”
Upon arrival, new recruits undergo a screening, which includes a temperature check, a risk-factor questionnaire and a medical evaluation, according to McDonnell. They are also required to sign a form attesting that they self-quarantined at home for 14 days before shipping out. Recruits are then sequestered in large tents while attending virtual classes for 14 days, a striking departure from the typical first two weeks of boot camp, when they are assigned to their drill instructors and undergo strenuous physical training. After those 14 days are up, they step onto the iconic yellow footprints outside the receiving building, and formally begin their journey to becoming a Marine.
Drill instructors, known for screaming into the faces of new arrivals as a form of Marine motivation, must now do so while wearing masks. Bunk beds have been spaced six feet apart in the squad bays and chow hall configurations have been tweaked to give recruits more space when they eat, according to McDonnell. Commanders have latitude to enforce additional measures to ensure drill instructors and recruits stay Covid-19 free, McDonnell said.
One company each of male and female recruits started boot camp this week, although officials declined to say exactly how many people that included. Traditionally, roughly 700 recruits make up two companies, according to McDonnell. For the time being, Parris Island will be training recruits in smaller classes. A Marine Corps recruiting video on Facebook indicated that numbers have been cut in half at Parris Island and Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, which handles all male Marine recruits west of the Mississippi River, to allow for more social distancing.
Maj. Joshua Benson, a spokesman with Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said shipping dates for some recruits are being changed, but he declined to say whether those changes specifically applied to hard-hit states, like New York and New Jersey.
The pandemic has forced the other services to also make adjustments to their recruit training regimens. The Army, Air Force and Navy have enacted 14-day “restriction of movement” protocols in order to monitor new arrivals for coronavirus symptoms. They implemented distancing and masking policies similar to the Marine Corps as well. The recruit depot in San Diego has followed the same guidelines as Parris Island, but has not paused the intake of new arrivals so far.
Despite reassurances from military leaders, some question how effectively these systems will work. “The military cannot do the things it needs to do to maintain readiness without bringing groups together in close proximity,” said Andrew Milburn, a retired Marine Corps colonel who led a special operations task force in Iraq and graduated from Parris Island in 1987 before later becoming an officer. “Recruit training is an obvious example.”
Milburn was assigned at one point to the Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego and said diseases tended to spread rapidly through recruit populations. Now the corps must take severe measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by fundamentally altering the training meant to make a Marine, a process that has changed very little over the years.
“They’re desperately trying to make this work under the rules they’ve been given,” he said. “When you start tinkering with that machine, it’s very hard for me to imagine you’re going to get the same quality output.”