Soldier: National Guard in NJ putting us at risk of coronavirus
Indoor dining is still not allowed. Gyms are still closed. And Gov. Phil Murphy has been worried about the lack of social distancing and mask-wearing at large gatherings.
But at some New Jersey National Guard facilities, soldiers have been packing into indoor cafeterias, sharing sleeping tents and cramming into classrooms without masks, according to a whistle-blowing guardsman who spoke to New Jersey 101.5. The source, describing observations over the last month, says none of them were being screened or tested for the coronavirus.
While state health officials have been urging residents and travelers to get tested for COVID-19, the New Jersey Army National Guard says it is not required by Defense Department regulations to test soldiers in training.
According to the New Jersey Army National Guard, of its 8,431 members, 129 have been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of Aug. 6. But it is not clear how many more may have been infected because the National Guard says it does not regularly test or screen its troops unless they are deployed.
These part-time warriors are not quarantined on a faraway base overseas — they are citizen-soldiers who after a few weeks return to civilian life, some with essential-worker jobs in police departments or firehouses. Some of the soldiers stationed at the Cape May National Guard Armory, who felt uncomfortable sharing sleeping quarters in the Armory during the pandemic, have rented rooms or Airbnb apartments in the community, the source said.
The whistleblower describes conditions at the Guard facilities that wouldn't, in many cases, be allowed at public gatherings or at businesses open to the public under state guidelines meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“No soldier is really local to here. If you’re a solider here, you probably come from throughout the state,” the guardsman said about the soldiers training in Cape May. New Jersey 101.5 has confirmed the source's identity and rank but agreed not to identify by name because the source is not authorized to speak to the press and fears reprisals for taking these concerns public.
“You have a hundred people coming from every county in the state congregating … and then releasing them back home to their parents and other loved ones. We also have some older soldiers,” the source said this week. “My concern was they were going to potentially infect each other and then spread it statewide.”
According to the whistleblowing guardsman, some soldiers raised alarm, including in at least one formal complaint with the military, about a lack of social distancing and personal protective equipment during the annual training this month. The source said that higher-ranking officials "seem to act like the whole thing is a hoax" because their actions don't back up their stated concerns for safety.
Soldiers who were worried about being exposed to the virus, have had to seek — and pay — for COVID-19 testing on their own, the whistleblower said.
Soldiers who did not want to share sleeping tents during three-night field training exercises at Fort Dix — where a single hand-washing station for about 100 people was inoperable — had to purchase tents at their own expense, the whistleblower said.
Soldiers also are responsible for maintaining their own supply of personal protective equipment. A spokeswoman for the Guard said soldiers are given nothing more than a cloth neck gaiter, although the New Jersey Army National Guard expects to receive a shipment of what she called Combat Cloth Masks “shortly,” with enough to provide each soldier with five.
Although Defense Department health guidance says the face coverings should be washed regularly, the whistleblower told New Jersey 101.5 that many soldiers are re-wearing filthy face coverings.
“The organization's health protocols, work plans, and training schedules are continually reviewed to stay in line with current guidance,” Lt. Col. Barbara Brown, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Army National Guard said Wednesday in an email. “All soldiers are keenly aware of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and are regularly briefed with current guidance on social distancing and the wearing of face coverings.”
On Tuesday, a day after NBC New York published a report that included a photo of a packed cafeteria at the National Guard armory in Cape May — and after a reporter questioned Murphy about the whistleblower’s concerns — the National Guard distributed a health questionnaire to soldiers, asking about their symptoms and whether they’ve been in contact with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, the whistleblower said.
The source told New Jersey 101.5 that this is the first time they were aware of soldiers in Cape May getting screened.
According to the Defense Department’s Health Force Protection Guidance, which has been periodically updated during the pandemic, only National Guard soldiers who are deployed on mission get screened for exposure history and checked for temperature. That means that the soldiers in Cape May undergo fewer healthy checks than residents who sit for a 30-minute haircut at a barbershop.
According to the guidance, face coverings are required when social distancing is not possible. But photos shared by the whistleblower show soldiers at the Cape May armory sitting next to one another indoors, either not wearing masks while eating or improperly wearing them with noses or mouths exposed while sitting in a room.
Murphy, who was shown the same photos, which were also provided to NBC New York, said Monday that he was “disturbed.”
“I don’t know where you’d be in the state if you didn’t know already that you shouldn’t be gathering inside. You shouldn’t be on top of each other without face coverings,” Murphy said during his news conference. “Everybody knows that. The National Guard knows that.”
A spokesman for the governor’s office referred follow-up questions to the New Jersey Army National Guard.
The National Guard did not respond to New Jersey 101.5’s specific questions about the photos, or the source's descriptions of closely-packed personnel without protective equipment.
State military officials also did not respond to questions about how they'd respond if a soldier were to test positive after being released from annual training. The whistleblower told New Jersey 101.5 that many of the soldiers are unemployed or lack health insurance.
“I came forward because I care about these soldiers,” the source said. "For them to be put at risk and their families at risk, especially at a time when there's no mission ... it seems so needless."
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.