Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

As America Socially Distances, The Army 'Tactically Disperses'


The U.S. is slowly opening up again. The Army wants to get back to its business of combat training - of course, with social distancing, or what the Army calls tactical dispersal. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman went to a base in California to see what tactical dispersal looks like.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: Soldiers completing the medical screening process take one step forward. Execute a right face.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The soldiers line up in a large concrete slab sheltered by a metal awning, all wearing masks and standing 6 feet apart. A stiff desert wind picks up as a soldier gets ready for a quick health check.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: Are you experiencing the following symptoms today - cough, shortness of breath or fever?


BOWMAN: His temperature's taken with a hand-held thermometer close to his forehead.


UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: OK. You can face this line over here.

BOWMAN: His temperature's normal. If he pops hot, he's isolated from the other soldiers, taken for a virus test and may be quarantined for two weeks. No training for him. This is all a simulation. But the Army's top officer, General Jim McConville, watches it all closely and turns to an officer.

JAMES MCCONVILLE: We got to keep this as safe as we can...


MCCONVILLE: ...When we bring - you know, bring the soldiers in.

BOWMAN: McConville came up in the Army as a helicopter pilot. But in the last few months, he's become well-versed on the virus, as well as such things as swabs and reagents and testing machines. And at the end of June, it will all become real at this Mojave desert. Base that's when several thousand National Guardsmen from 15 states will descend on Fort Irwin for two months. Keeping them healthy and able to train is foremost in the general's mind.

MCCONVILLE: We're going to have to be able to make sure we get tests, check out from all over the place.


MCCONVILLE: We've got to make sure that we can do that.


BOWMAN: Those Guard soldiers will be the first to train here since March, when the coronavirus canceled and postponed field exercises for two other units. The Army had to quickly adjust. Now all soldiers are tested before they arrive. Buses bringing soldiers here will be half-full to allow for distancing. Tents will have fewer cots. The officers walk into a massive tent the size of a high school gym. A sergeant major's voice echoes as he points to the sea of green cots, all with the proper distancing.

UNIDENTIFIED SERGEANT MAJOR: If you noticed all the cots that are crossed here, they're 6 feet spacing now.

BOWMAN: And soldiers will alternate how they sleep, no longer head to head.

UNIDENTIFIED SERGEANT MAJOR: Head to foot to minimize the impact.

BOWMAN: Army leaders like McConville are eager to start large-scale combat training again of brigades, a unit with some 4,000 soldiers. Another training base in Louisiana next month will also welcome back hundreds of soldiers as they prepare for their mission to Afghanistan later this year. McConville gives some advice for Brigadier General Dave Lesperance, who commands Fort Irwin.

DAVE LESPERANCE: What I'm looking for is you just got to minimize exposure. You know, you you really have to have social distancing. You really have to keep people apart. They really have to wear their masks.

BOWMAN: The National Guard soldiers will arrive here with their armor and artillery and head into a training area called The Box, a sprawling desert expanse of mountains and hills the size of Rhode Island.

LESPERANCE: The safest place for people to be will be in the desert. We call it social distancing in the civilian sector, you call it tactical dispersion out here. And they'll be tactically dispersed and they'll be working through that.

BOWMAN: There are some 4,000 soldiers permanently based at Fort Irwin, part of an opposition force or opfor that battles visiting units. Back at a conference room, General Lesperance says he's had just a handful of positive virus cases here. The military hospital on post is equipped with three machines that can quickly complete a virus test. So how many tests per day?

LESPERANCE: Right now, 144 a day. And the capacity that we want to get to is a thousand a day.

BOWMAN: If he wants to do a lot more, he has to turn to a private lab in Phoenix. But the turnaround time is two to seven days. General McConville says that's too much time for an Army unit to stand idle. The general shakes his head. It wasn't long ago when the only talk at Fort Irwin was about weapons systems, how many rounds it can fire and its range.

MCCONVILLE: And here we're talking about, how many people can you test with this machine? How many of these do you have? How many of those you have?

KING: Tom Bowman reporting for NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.