RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. Army is now getting back to large-scale training. But first, they had to prepare the military base where the training would happen. Back in May at the training base in the Mojave Desert, the Army practiced taking temperatures, isolating soldiers who tested positive and socially distancing.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Soldiers completing the medical screening process, take one step forward, execute a right face.
MARTIN: That was all in preparation for 4,000 National Guard soldiers who would be sent there. Those soldiers are now in the middle of their training. And NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman returned to see how they're holding up. And a note - this story includes the sound of gunfire from the training.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The village of Seize Razish is under attack. Machine gunfire, artillery barrages, armored vehicles speed across the open desert.
DAVE LESPERANCE: Today, you have two battalions in the attack right now.
BOWMAN: We should see them in the distance, the dust coming up behind their vehicles.
LESPERANCE: That's exactly right.
BOWMAN: Brigadier General Dave Lesperance commands this National Training Center, a vast swath of deserts and mountains the size of Rhode Island. The village is a cluster of squat concrete buildings, some several stories high. They're brown and beige and rust-colored. From this hilltop perch, they resemble a child's building blocks. General Lesperance points to mountain passes in the distance, more like scars in the parched Earth.
LESPERANCE: So we call that one granite pass. There's another one called the wormhole and then there's a passage to India. These are all Hollywood names.
BOWMAN: This desert training is not new. The Army's been rotating thousands of soldiers here every few months for nearly four decades to fight the resident opposition force. Think of it as a sophisticated laser tag. What's new, the general says, is a key piece of equipment.
LESPERANCE: I was pleasantly surprised with the level of discipline and approach to wearing this mask out here.
BOWMAN: The general himself is wearing a mask as he explains all this, so too is the Army's top officer, General Jim McConville, who stands nearby watching the mock attack. McConville sports a camouflage one that matches his uniform.
JIM MCCONVILLE: If you look at - we have our helmets on. We've got our glasses on. We've got our masks on. We have our gloves on. We're wearing things here. And if you look around, it's kind of the standard.
BOWMAN: And what if a soldier is not wearing a mask or lets it slip off his face? General Lesperance has a ready answer.
LESPERANCE: Hey, get your mask on.
BOWMAN: That same message, he says, is expected from the observers, sort of coaches who follow the action here, as well as the junior officers. General McConville says the mask, as well as widespread testing, is all part of the Army getting back to large-scale training safely.
MCCONVILLE: You can't telecommute to combat. So we have to go and we have to put soldiers on the ground. And we have to do it around the world. And they've got to be highly trained, disciplined and fit. So we have to train them, you know? And so we've got to do this.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
BOWMAN: The 4,000 National Guard soldiers attacking this mock village are the first ones here since March when the coronavirus hit. The Army canceled two other units slated to come here until testing procedures could be put in place. So the soldiers arriving from 20 states were tested before coming here, says General Lesperance, and screened once again when they came to Fort Irwin. And how many tested positive here?
LESPERANCE: We did identify positive soldiers, less than 20. And our systems worked.
BOWMAN: Those soldiers were isolated, he says, but not one was hospitalized. Contact tracing led to another 100 soldiers who had to be quarantined.
MCCONVILLE: You don't want that 1% to grow to 10%.
BOWMAN: Again, General McConville.
MCCONVILLE: You want to be able to isolate it. You want to be able to screen it. And then you've got to do continuous surveillance because you don't want someone to spread it throughout the force.
BOWMAN: Since those soldiers were so spread out among the 4,000, it had no effect on the two-week training effort that includes the assault on the village. Soldiers are constantly monitored for symptoms, the generals say. Temperatures are taken daily.
(SOUNDBITE OF HUMVEE ENGINE)
BOWMAN: The generals hop into Humvees for the drive through the mock village of Seize Razish. Soldiers are crouched against walls while others stand guard. Most wear masks. We pass abandoned cars, a portrait of Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a plaster wall, a building with a minaret that resembles a mosque. Then we pass a handful of soldiers huddled in front of an armored vehicle. Not one is wearing a mask. Just ahead is the commander of this unit, Colonel Timothy Kemp of the Minnesota National Guard. He is wearing a face mask.
TIMOTHY KEMP: It's something that's a new part of our uniform.
BOWMAN: We saw a cluster of soldiers talking among themselves very close and not one was wearing a mask.
KEMP: And that's something that we have to talk with the soldiers about and help them understand, you know, the reason for doing that and to protect each other by wearing a mask.
BOWMAN: Kemp and his soldiers arrived at this training base after taking part in a real-world mission, assisting local officials with the protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police.
KEMP: And 99.9% or even beyond that of the people actually ended up just having conversations with our soldiers when we're out there. We had a couple of soldiers actually paint - help an older gentleman paint graffiti off his wall.
(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)
BOWMAN: In the coming months, these soldiers will head off to another real-world mission overseas. But for security reasons, they're not allowed to say where. And the next unit training here, masks and all, will be an active duty unit from Fort Carson, Colo. Just before he turns to walk away, Colonel Kemp notices two soldiers barefaced and calls out to them. Mask up, gentlemen. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Fort Irwin, Calif.
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