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Hawaii military battling COVID-19 with child-care center employee testing positive, troops returning early from Thailand and postponement of key missile test

  • COURTESY U.S. ARMY / 2018
                                The 25th Infantry Division Salute Battery fired cannons during 196th Infantry Brigade Vietnam Veterans’ Recognition Ceremony at Fort Shafter.

    COURTESY U.S. ARMY / 2018

    The 25th Infantry Division Salute Battery fired cannons during 196th Infantry Brigade Vietnam Veterans’ Recognition Ceremony at Fort Shafter.

COVID-19 continues to impact the military in Hawaii with a Fort Shafter child-care center employee testing positive for the coronavirus, Schofield Barracks bringing home early from Thailand a force that at one point numbered 1,440 soldiers, and the postponement of a major missile defense test that was focused on the ability to defend Hawaii.

In a letter today to the “Fort Shafter Child Development Center ohana,” U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii commander Col. Tom Barrett said that on Thursday, one of the care center’s employees tested positive for COVID-19.

That employee has been on administrative leave since March 24, he said.

“Medical professionals from Tripler Army Medical Center have reviewed the details of this case and assessed the risk to any individuals at the Fort Shafter CDC to be low,” Barrett wrote.

Tripler assessed the case to be travel-related transmission resulting from exposure to an out-of-state individual, he said.

Barrett directed the temporary closure of the center in order to conduct additional deep cleaning, with the intent to reopen on Monday.

“All U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii CDCs continue to use enhanced cleaning, sanitation and health screening procedures” that were implemented March 15, he said.

Schofield Barracks’ command team announced Thursday, meanwhile, that a force that once numbered 1,440 soldiers will be returning to Hawaii from training in Thailand.

The exercise originally was slated to run into the latter part of May.

An Army-produced news story said soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division and counterparts from the Royal Thai Army officially started Exercise Hanuman Guardian 20 at an opening ceremony Feb. 24 at Camp Friendship in Korat, Thailand.

U.S participation included approximately 1,440 soldiers from Schofield and 700 Thai personnel. Training events were to include a military decision-making process exercise, a platoon and company level field training exercise, and a live-fire exercise.

It was part of the first stop of Pacific Pathways 2020, an Army approach to bulking up forces for months at a time in the region with a light but persistent footprint that follows the “places, not bases” mantra of the Pentagon.

“Our soldiers in Thailand will be returning home in the next few weeks,” Maj. Gen. Jamie Jarrard, the commander of the 25th Division, said in a Facebook town hall video Thursday.

On Monday, in a similar update, Jarrard had said, “The timeline for the exercise has not changed. The current plan is for our soldiers to return home in May. This exercise is important. The Royal Thailand Army, or RTA, is one of our closest partners in the region.”

Jarrard noted then that the COVID-19 risk had increased but the Army was “continuing to assess that risk” and taking prudent measures “to make sure our soldiers remain safe.”

Should the risk become too high, “we can make appropriate decisions,” he said.

On Thursday, Jarrard said the Hawaii soldiers are returning “after having successfully completed their mission.” He did not discuss a coronavirus update.

Army Times reported Thursday that the task force was requiring daily temperature checks of all soldiers.

Several soldiers who had fevers and respiratory symptoms common with COVID-19 were placed in patient hold facilities for monitoring, Army Times said.

One soldier tested negative at a Thai medical facility, the publication said. Command Sgt. Maj. William Pouliot said at the same Thursday Facebook video update that the Army will conduct a “responsible return.”

“We will implement stringent controls that are fully compliant with the governor of Hawaii’s direction — to include a 14-day quarantine period and observation once back in the community,” Pouliot said.

He said the soldiers will be returning “soon.”

“The process has begun, and just like it took a few weeks to get there, it’s going to take the same to get home,” he said.

“Thank you!!,” wrote Paola M. Fana Muniz on Facebook in response. “Our soldiers need their family and home especially at this time.”

COVID-19 concerns also have resulted in the postponement of an upcoming first-of-its-kind test of a new intercontinental ballistic missile killer that was to be conducted with a “defense-of-Hawaii scenario” in mind.

The new SM-3 Block IIA missile, with longer reach and greater speed, could not only provide greater protection for Hawaii, but also Guam, other U.S. interests and Japan.

The planned May test was expected to see a Navy destroyer, likely the USS John Paul Jones out of Pearl Harbor, fire an SM-3 Block IIA missile at an ICBM target missile out over the Pacific.

Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill said at the March 12 hearing that a congressional mandate for the test was to “do a defense-of-Hawaii scenario.”

“So we’ll launch the ICBM (target), it will fly through the field of view of the sensor coverage and then we’ll fly that long-range and we’ll have ship mission planning — putting (the ship) in the proper position — and shoot the SM-3,” he said.

Hill added that two of the SM-3 IIA missiles were on-site, likely the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, “so we have a primary and we have a backup, so we’ve brought in everything that we need to do to be successful in that test.”

“The decision to delay the test is in response to the global effort to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), while minimizing exposure of U.S. military and civilian personnel, and is in full alignment with guidance from the Department of Defense regarding COVID-19 travel and shipment restrictions,” Missile Defense Agency spokesman Mark Wright said in an email today.

The spring test “will be re-scheduled as soon as the department lifts the COVID-19 restrictions and assets are available to support the flight test event,” Wright said.

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