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New virus, old enemy

At Marine Corps basic training in San Diego this fall, new recruits do what they’ve done for generations. They furiously scrub their rifles to perfection. Every weapon must be clean enough to eat with, every bed must have exact creases, every bootlace must be flawless. And every face must wear a mask.

A sergeant major asks how many cases of coronavirus there are in the barracks. “Zero, sir,” the drill instructor responds.

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The military can’t work from home. So when the coronavirus pandemic hit, leaders decided they had no choice but to fight through. Nowhere is that harder than at basic training installations like Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, where hundreds of recruits from all over the country arrive each week.

A few early missteps led to large quarantines. But since then, a strict but simple strategy of isolation, masks and hand-washing has been strikingly successful at keeping the virus out of the ranks.

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Across the U.S. military, the story is similar. As of Saturday, out of 1.3 million active-duty troops, only 777 had been hospitalized for COVID-19 and nine had died. Compare that with Nassau County in the New York suburbs: A similar-size population, albeit an older and less fit one, that has had more than 2,200 COVID-19 deaths to date.

Disease is a familiar enemy that the military long ago learned to fight. During the Civil War, disease claimed twice as many Union soldiers as combat did. In World War I, nearly as many men died of influenza as died in the trenches. The losses forced the military to become a leader in sanitation and infection control.

The military has demographics on its side: It is filled with young, healthy people at minimal risk for the coronavirus’s worst effects. Even so, leaders say, the low infection numbers in the ranks show that simple hygiene and social distancing, consistently enforced, is a winning strategy.

Before the pandemic, recruits began basic training standing on an iconic pair of yellow painted footprints. Now their first step is two weeks quarantined in a hotel.

Mandatory physical exercise routines are broadcast to the quarantined recruits twice a day on closed-circuit TV. The recruits never leave their hotel rooms.

“I knew joining during all this wasn’t going to be fun,” said Alex Killmade, 18, of St. Louis, on his eighth day in quarantine. “But it’s basic training — it’s not supposed to be fun. I just want to get out of here and get started.”

Some recruits find quarantine so stressful that they drop out. The Marine Corps sees that as an unexpected bonus, saving the effort of starting to train recruits who probably would fail later.

Leaders plan to retain some form of prescreening period after the pandemic subsides.

After two weeks in quarantine, the recruits are considered “clean.” The challenge becomes keeping them that way in the crowded, stressful environment of training.

The Marine Corps strictly limits interactions between uninfected recruits and the outside world. Constant hand-washing and disinfecting become routine. “It’s not that hard — it’s discipline,” said Nelson Santos, a drill instructor. “Just follow instructions, attention to detail. Wash your hands, wear a mask. Don’t go anywhere you don’t need to.”

Recruits eat, sleep and train in isolated platoons, so the Marine Corps can easily put a perimeter around the virus if a recruit or instructor catches it.

The precautions keeping the coronavirus at bay are also sharply reducing the incidence of other diseases in the ranks, including influenza. Leaders say they won’t go back to old practices once the virus recedes.

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The base commander, Brig. Gen. Ryan Heritage, says the biggest risk is that the virus will sneak inside the wire with Marines who commute from homes in town. Troops have been ordered to stay away from social gatherings off base.

So far, the Marines have held the line. While the surrounding civilian community in San Diego has been reporting hundreds of new infections a day and many local colleges have shut campuses, as of Saturday, the Marine Recruit Depot had no known COVID-19 cases.

Take away the face masks, and Marine basic training looks as raw and hard-edged as it has for generations.

For many recruits, surviving the 15 weeks of basic training is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. Coronavirus has added one more hurdle to the timeless test of grit.

Before dawn on a recent morning at Camp Pendleton, 35 miles north of the San Diego depot, yells echoed through the inky dark as recruits began the final physical challenge of basic training, a steep hill climb called the Reaper.

In the darkness, the raised voices of the platoons, singing and yelling as they marched, echoed off the hillsides, as they have for generations.

“This is why you are here — how is this going to define you?” a drill instructor barked as his recruits humped up the climb. He congratulated each man when the climb was done.

At the top, recruits briefly broke social distancing rules to celebrate. “Don’t let up, ever,” one instructor told his men. “The country needs you. The future is yours, the only thing that can stop you is you.”

In a time like no other, some traditions take on more meaning than ever. In the hands of each recruit who made it through, instructors placed a small Eagle, Globe and Anchor pin. The pin meant they were no longer recruits. They were Marines.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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