Masks on Leatherneck Square: Virus changes Marine training

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Staff Sgt. Katheryn Hunter, a Marine drill instructor at Parris Island Recruit Depot in South Carolina, poses for a photo on May 27, 2020. In ways big and small, the virus is impacting training at the Marine Corps' Parris Island Recruit Depot and across the military. Hunter, a drill instructor for three years at Parris Island, said the main difference she sees due to the virus is that the number of female recruits she has in 4th Battalion, Oscar Company, has dropped to 70.(AP Photo/Lolita Baldor)

PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. – The booming shouts of the rain-soaked Marine recruits echo across Leatherneck Square training field, barely muffled by their masks. And as they jog by, belting out responses to drill instructors in a rhythmic cadence, the white fabric across their faces is the only telltale sign of the coronavirus' effects on their quest to become Marines.

But in ways big and small, the virus is impacting training at the Marine Corps' Parris Island Recruit Depot and across the military. And defense leaders say some of the adjustments are proving beneficial and could become permanent.

Maj. Gen. James Glynn, commander of Parris Island, said requiring recruits to spend two weeks in quarantine before their training has had unexpected benefits.

“They are singularly focused on two weeks of mental and emotional prep for what you guys are seeing today,” he said during a visit Wednesday by Defense Secretary Mark Esper. “I think it’s pretty evident it’s making a difference. They’re mentally focused and have reconciled why they’re here.”

Until this week, recruits spent the two-week quarantine in a complex of large white tents and bathroom and shower trailers that was quickly built on the base to allow health monitoring and keep them isolated. But now recruits are spending the two weeks in dorms at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, in Charleston, about a two-hour drive north.

Esper, who toured the tent area with Glynn, said the new precautions — including masks, social distancing and the quarantine — have greatly lowered the amount of other respiratory illnesses recruits traditionally get.

“They’ve seen a much lower sick call right across the board when it comes to infection, so they’re going to keep that. And we’re going to keep some other practices," said Esper, adding that by breaking the recruits into smaller groups, “they’ve seen a higher level of unity and esprit. And they bonded much more quickly.”

As Esper walked around the soggy field, recruits were going through what Marines call the “confidence course.” They were clambering over large log obstacles, climbing towers, shimmying across rope lines strung over a net, and swinging over streams of water. In other sections, recruits were paired off to battle with pugil sticks, which replicates rifle and bayonet combat.