About 45,000 of the newest soldiers, and their instructors, are expected to travel during holiday leave.
The Army’s soldiers in training will start traveling home for the holidays this week—regardless of their vaccine status—as the service nears its COVID-19 vaccine deadline.
“We want them to focus on the mental and the spiritual readiness. I think they're pretty busy, they're pretty stressed out in some cases, as you can imagine. And so it's just really important for them to get this opportunity to kind of have a chance to reconnect with their families. And then that way when they come back from the holidays, they're ready to go again,” Brig. Gen. John Kline, the commander of the U.S. Army’s Center for Initial Military Training, told reporters Monday.
About 45,000 soldiers from 20 different locations across the United States are expected to travel to see their families during a leave period that starts Dec. 16 and ends around Jan. 3, Kline said. That number includes soldiers in basic training, advanced individual training for their jobs, the basic officer leaders course, and instructors at these schools. Last year, when no vaccines were available, the command had less than one percent return from winter holiday leave with a positive COVID-19 case— less than 450 cases.
This year, the holiday leave starts one day after the Army’s active-duty COVID-19 vaccine mandate deadline. As of Dec. 7, 95 percent of active-duty soldiers have been fully vaccinated. Less than one percent of their trainees, students, and teachers are unvaccinated, Kline said.
“We have some trainees, [a] very, very small percentage, that are either waiting for an exception to policy on medical grounds or even religious grounds… And we do have some cadre, just like any cross section of the U.S. right now, that are resistant to get the vaccination. And so we are encouraging them to do it. And we think it's the right thing to do. It is the policy,” Kline said.
Once those unvaccinated soldiers return from leave, the command will determine how to process each case, he added.
Vaccinated soldiers will have their temperature checked and determine whether they have COVID-19 symptoms before they leave for vacation and then once they return. Those who are unvaccinated will follow the same protocols as last year, with a test before they leave and another when they return. Those who test positive will not be allowed to travel. If a soldier tests positive during their holiday leave at home, they will quarantine in place and their leadership will track their recovery, Kline said.
Soldiers who get sick and are quarantined risk being pushed back to another class, delaying their training and Army career. Kline said they are educating soldiers on hand-washing and mask-wearing protocols to prevent sickness, like they did last year.
“We don't want to be the vector—the United States Army doesn't want to be the vector for the disease like this. Last year, when we did it, we were hugely successful,” Kline said.