Returning troops denied water, bathrooms before quarantine
WASHINGTON — It wasn’t the welcome home that U.S. soldiers expected when they returned from war zones in the Middle East in the past week.
When their planes landed at Fort Bliss, Texas, they were herded into buses, denied water and the use of bathrooms, then quarantined in packed barracks, with little food or access to the outdoors. “This is no way to treat Soldiers returning from war,” one soldier told The Associated Press in an email.
The soldiers posted notes on social media about the poor conditions. Their complaints got quick attention from senior Army and Pentagon leaders. Now changes are under way at Fort Bliss and at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where the first soldiers placed under quarantine also complained of poor, cramped conditions.
Quarantining troops on military bases is becoming a greater challenge for military officials. While continuing missions and training, they also have to try to prevent the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus by enforcing two-week quarantines of soldiers who have spent months overseas.
In one of Bragg's remote training areas, large white tents have popped up over the past few days to house hundreds of 82nd Airborne Division troops returning to the base from Afghanistan and Middle East deployments. The tent city, being called Forward Operating Base Patriot (FOB Patriot), materialized almost overnight, after commanders realized the limits of the barracks when troops began arriving on Saturday.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said senior leaders were looking into soldiers’ complaints and seeking answers from Fort Bliss. Pentagon chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters that Defense Secretary Mark Esper had heard about the problems and "his response is, we can do better and we need to do better.”
Hoffman said the commander at Fort Bliss has met with all of the quarantined soldiers and “talked through some of their concerns. The spokesman added, “We are going to do better. This is something unusual for all these bases to be handling, and they are doing the best they can.”
In the early days of the quarantine, soldiers at Fort Bliss posted photos on social media showing foam food trays dotted with small piles of peas and rice. On Thursday, in an email statement, Fort Bliss described changes that have been made.
“The dining facility we initially used could not keep pace with demand,” said the statement. “The portions were inadequate, and led to our number one complaint. Fort Bliss leaders saw photos and immediately took action.”
One soldier, in an email to the AP, said when soldiers got off the plane from Afghanistan, they were loaded onto buses and did not get water or permission to use the bathroom for hours.
“We can’t walk down the hall, go outside, or exercise. We finally received drinking water at 0900 this morning,” said the soldier, describing Day Two. “The Army was not prepared, nor equipped to deal with this quarantine instruction and it has been implemented very poorly. ”
The AP is not identifying soldiers who described the conditions, in order to protect their identity so they could speak freely and not worry about potential reprisals.
Fort Bliss said that the food service plan has already increased to give troops three hot meals a day and that soldiers are now getting donated snacks and are allowed to order food and have it delivered to a central location. The troops are also allowed to go outside more and will get more access to gym equipment.