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Army Scales Back In-Person Recruiting, Deploys Virus Testing Before Basic Training

Sergeant First Class Nathan Anslow runs the Inglewood Army recruiting station in Los Angeles.
Tom Bowman
Sergeant First Class Nathan Anslow runs the Inglewood Army recruiting station in Los Angeles.

The Inglewood Army recruiting station is tucked into a strip mall in a gritty part of Los Angeles. Its neighbors are a liquor store, fast food outlets and palm trees. Inside are the familiar posters: smiling soldiers with the slogans "Army Strong" and "Army Team."

Sergeant First Class Nathan Anslow runs this station. He points to something new just inside the door. A stack of questionnaires — coronavirus screening forms. It's the first stop for potential recruits.

"I go over the screening questions," he said. "Do they have any of the symptoms? Have they felt any of this? Have they travelled? Are they currently sick or been around someone who's sick?"

On the table are Clorox wipes and a bottle of hand sanitizer. Another table holds boxes of protective gear.

"So if they come to the office and don't have masks and gloves, I have some to provide for them," he said.

Every recruiter here already is wearing a mask. Anslow sports a white one. Others have black masks, an LA Dodgers mask. And, of course, a few camouflage masks to match their uniforms.

This store front office normally would hold 11 recruiters. But in the age of distancing, Anslow has chopped down that number. Now just three recruiters at a time are in the office, and only three recruits — who come in just to sign the final paperwork.

And the all-important parents?

"So if the parents want to sit down and go over things, I set up a separate appointment," Anslow said. "Because we don't want a bunch of people in here at the same time because it puts everybody at risk."

Recruiters are somewhat stuck during this pandemic. They can't go out like they used to, trawling for recruits at schools and malls, or visiting their homes. And few people can come in to the recruiting station.

That's why recruiters are going online. They're on Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and chat rooms. The Army was already moving in that direction. The age of the TV ad — remember "Be All That You Can Be"? — is fading as most young people are staring at hand-held screens.

"A lot of my future soldiers come from social media ... seeing my story and then reaching out to me," said Staff Sergeant Daniel Coello, one of the recruiters here. He's 27 and a Cuban immigrant who enlisted and then served in Iraq.

In this age of the coronavirus, wipes and hand sanitizer are front and center at the Inglewood recruiting station.
Tom Bowman / NPR
In this age of the coronavirus, wipes and hand sanitizer are front and center at the Inglewood recruiting station.

The virus is on the minds of both recruits and parents, he said. Some recruits want to sign up because COVID-19 is all but ending any job prospects. Military recruiters have often said over the years the best thing for recruiting is a recession.

And the parents? There is still the common concern about their child becoming a casualty on a far-off battlefield. Add to that the fear of being infected with the virus.

"Mainly it's the parents and the family members that are concerned for them. Because they don't want them to leave home, so that they're not exposed," he said.

Still, Sergeant Coello has been able to allay parents' concerns. His goal for the year is 36 recruits. He's already signed up 32. The annual goal for the office is 100. But it's a small slice of an Army hoping to attract some 69,000 new soldiers by the fall.

The Army is intent on making sure those future soldiers stay healthy. Before shipping out to basic training, recruits must quarantine for two weeks, wear masks and socially distance.

Even with those defensive measures, the coronavirus ambushed a local recruit recently, just as he arrived at the training base.

"That's when they tested and found out this individual was positive," said Command Sergeant Major Jason Provens. "Could that have been picked up in transport? Yes. Could that have been picked up at the airport? Yes. Could that have been at the station? That's why we have to back up all the contact and assume the worst."

As a result of that positive test, a recruiting station in nearby Long Beach had to close and sanitize. And a recruiter is now quarantined for two weeks.

Army officials are quick to point out the recruit was tested and isolated before he could infect others at basic training.

"You know the really good news is once we get to basic training we have a test," said Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, who's visiting this recruiting station with the top Army officer, General Jim McConville.

All recruits must be tested and quarantined for two weeks — even if the test is negative. Then the soldier is tested a second time before being allowed to train.

"We're going to know right off the bat and no matter where you are, we have our hospitals and every training location has its own tests," he said.

For his part, Gen. McConnville hopes all this will prevent another cluster of cases. That happened back in March when the South Carolina training base Fort Jackson was hit with COVID-19 and some 50 recruits fell ill.

"We're pretty comfortable with the procedures we have in place," the general said. "But we respect the virus. We don't want to get over confident and think we have it all figured out. We don't."

So the virus-free recruits will wear masks while they train and will also social distance. McConville points out the Army has always promoted that kind of distancing, or what it calls "tactical dispersal," because you don't want to bunch up and provide an enemy force with an easy target.

And those recruits will also have a new piece of gear: a pocket-sized bottle of hand sanitizer. McConville holds one up.

"They gave me that at Fort Jackson," he said. "It's Army-issued Purell. It's right there in the green bottle."

The plastic bottle comes complete with indentations for an easy grip.

"Only the Army," he said, "could figure out, you know, how to have, like, a hand hold."

He stuffs his tactical Purell into his cargo pants and heads out through the masked recruiters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.