The Canadian military is defending its decision to send hundreds of troops to the U.S. for training, even as one Edmonton soldier called it a “trivial exercise” that needlessly puts troops at risk of COVID-19.
Around 500 members of the Canadian military will travel to Fort Polk, Louisiana, this week to participate in a three-week long exercise with roughly 4,500 U.S. troops.
It’s the largest international training exercise the Canadian Army has taken part in since the beginning of the pandemic, a military spokesperson confirmed.
The commander of Edmonton-based 1st Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (1CMBG) called the exercise a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity and a necessary step to ready the group for its next assignment.
“There are certainly risks to doing anything in a COVID environment but in our mind the risk of not being trained if Canadians give us the call is worse,” said Col. Wade Rutland, commander of 1CMBG.
“We have plenty of force protection measures that are proven and are in place now that we’ll use to make sure that these soldiers, our allies and their families are protected.”
The 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry, part of 1CMBG, is set to become the army’s go-to battalion in July to rescue Canadians from hostile situations, known as non-combatant evacuation operations, Rutland said.
The battalion makes up the majority of the soldiers travelling to Louisiana, along with some air force members, army engineers and reservists, Rutland said.
“On the first of July, if there are Canadians that need help in a foreign country that want to be pulled out, I’ll bet you they’ll be happy that we mitigated the risk and went on this exercise when we have a competent, highly-skilled battalion that are ready to assist Canadians.”
‘There’s no clear direction,’ soldier says
But a member of 1CMBG said the leadership’s lack of transparency about the exercise has generated confusion and alarm.
The soldier, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said leadership had failed to assure soldiers of the exercise’s necessity or its COVID-19 precautions.
“There’s no clear direction,” the soldier said. “I think everyone is pretty concerned about the liberties they take with the health and wellness, not only of the members participating but the public for such a trivial exercise.”
“It is absolutely not necessary,” the source said. “I’ve never actually seen such confusion among the ranks.”
Soldiers arrived at a base in Suffield, Alta., on Tuesday for a 10-day quarantine ahead of the trip, Rutland said. They were expected to quarantine at home for four days before travelling on private buses to the base. At Suffield, the soldiers will follow strict COVID-19 measures, including timed meals and mask protocols, Rutland said.
The group will be tested three days before departing on a Feb. 26 chartered flight to Louisiana, with private buses taking soldiers from the plane to Fort Polk. The base is home to the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), one of three large U.S. Army combat training facilities.
There, the soldiers will join up with North Carolina-based troops for the exercise, Rutland said.
“What we’re doing is creating a COVID-free tunnel that they’ll travel in, get into this box where they’ll be interacting with other allied soldiers who have gone through the same kind of protocols,” he said.
In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for JRTC said 0.5 per cent of soldiers had tested positive during a February training rotation, which included Brazilian and U.S. forces.
On a rotation of about 4,500 soldiers, that’s equivalent to 23 positive cases.
If soldiers exhibit symptoms, they are isolated and undergo a rapid COVID-19 test, said JRTC public affairs officer Kim Reischling. Soldiers who receive a negative result return to training and positive cases are quarantined in a medical barracks.
“The JRTC builds readiness in all soldiers who may be called to combat, but always, their health and welfare is of the utmost importance,” Reischling said in an email.
The U.S. and Canadian military only release COVID-19 cases at a national level, not by base.
The exact details of where soldiers will be tested or quarantined in Canada after the exercise has not been finalized, Rutland said.
“The way back is certainly more fluid but we won’t let anyone out into society until they are free and safe. That’s both for them and their families and our Canadian public. The last thing we want to do is a source of non-safety for our population,” he said.
Even with precautions, possible high risk of transmission, expert says
At the outset of the pandemic, the military cancelled one of its largest annual exercises but has since resumed training both in Canada and across borders. Rutland said the brigade has not had any COVID-19 cases on a major field exercise, calling it a “very safe place to be” with the additional precautions.
The Royal Canadian Air Force took part in a training exercise in Guam last month and currently has two Chinook helicopters deployed to training in Alaska.
The size of the exercise in Louisiana is cause for concern, said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta. Despite quarantine and testing protocols, she said the possibility remains for someone to transmit the virus during an asymptomatic incubation period or after a false negative test result.
“What we’re doing is creating a COVID-free tunnel that they’ll travel in, get into this box where they’ll be interacting with other allied soldiers who have gone through the same kind of protocols.”– Col. Wade Rutland, commander of 1CMBG
“Even with many precautions in place, this strikes me as being pretty high risk for transmission events,” Saxinger said. “I’m feeling very cautious about it honestly.”
“Once you get to this scale, the opportunity for problems to arise and the variability of how things are done and the chances of mistake just keep on going up.”
The military should ensure soldiers undergo a strict quarantine and then receive a COVID-19 test before they return to the community, Saxinger said.
Soldiers says its a culminating point for brigade
The anonymous soldier said the decision to move ahead with the exercise is a “culminating point” for 1CMBG.
“We’re already suffering in numbers and lack of leadership as it is and doing these kinds of exercises isn’t helping retention or recruitment,” the soldier said, adding that the exercise has put pressure on the families and loved ones of the soldiers.
“Military routinely asks its members to put themselves in harm’s way. Most sign the dotted line knowing and accepting this.
“However Canada’s conventional military is far from conflict, in fact actively avoids it. So why send troops across borders, risking their health and potentially the health of every Canadian upon return. That’s exactly what’s happening in 1CMBG.”
Rutland acknowledged the pandemic has created communication challenges for leadership, with fewer opportunities to meet in person. He continued to stress the importance of the training, saying some soldiers were excited for the opportunity.
“The risk of not doing it is quite simply worse. The guys get it, they don’t love it, everyone knows it’s tough and it’s tough on families,” he said.
“We won’t send our soldiers into possible harm’s way without training.”
The military is spending roughly $650,000 on COVID-19 precautions for the exercise, including the costs of extra buses to keep soldiers physically distanced during travel, Rutland said.