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Where social distancing is impossible

Robert Stanger

We read that former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has reacted to the coronavirus pandemic to the extent of recommending that the Navy bring all its ships into port and quarantine crew members for two weeks until they were rid of any taint of the virus.

After the crews were returned to their ships, which would have been sanitized in the interim, they would have to remain on them until the society ashore was free of the virus. The Navy has an “acute problem” with the virus, Mabus said.

This recommendation follows on the heels of the controversy surrounding the USS Theodore Roosevelt, where the captain of the aircraft carrier, Brett E. Crozier, was fired for recommending, in a long letter to colleagues, much the same policy due to an outbreak of the virus on his vessel among his crew of some 5,000.

His letter found its way into a San Diego newspaper and Crozier was accused of acting outside of the chain of command by writing it.

Most of his carrier’s crew was later disembarked and quarantined at hotels on Guam, where the vessel was moored, as Crozier had recommended. One crew member died of the virus.

Thomas Modly, the Acting Navy Secretary who fired Capt, Crozier, flew to Guam in a trip that cost $243,000 and harshly upbraided Crozier in a speech to the crew.

In the wake of much publicity over his intemperate speech, Modly resigned.

There are now reports that Capt. Crozier could be reinstated.

This running drama shows what a problem a highly contagious disease can pose to large groups of people confined near one another and where “social distancing” is impossible.

I witnessed an outbreak of respiratory illness a good number of years ago among a confined group of young men, and in fact was one of the victims myself. The scene was the Navy recruit training facility at Bainbridge, Md.

I had enlisted into the Navy after college mostly to escape being drafted. I also had a much older brother who had a career in the Navy, and I was fond of boating and swimming.

I had also applied to Navy Officers Candidate School and thought that I could perhaps find my way there through the lower ranks — which was basically a serious error in judgement.

I also thought that perhaps a four-year stint in the Navy might be better than a shorter one in the Army.

The recruits at Bainbridge were split up into “companies” and each had its own section of a barracks.

In contrast with today’s outbreak of coronavirus, the illness that spread among the recruits was strictly of local origin and had to do with the Navy’s apparent policy on “training” recruits.

This policy was so blatantly misguided that I can’t believe that much in the line of its remnants could exist in the Navy’s policies today. The practices were possibly meant to eliminate the “weak” among the recruits … but if so, the “weak” were certainly quite numerous.

It was winter a Bainbridge when I was there. The windows of the barracks were left partly open at night, and thus the recruits slept (or tried to sleep) amidst cold drafts of air.

There was one blanket per bunk, and guards (just recruits themselves) were instructed to stop any attempts by recruits to don any articles of clothing over their “skivvies” (underwear) to keep warm.

At the center of the training center there was a large expanse of asphalt called the “grinder” where rifle-carrying recruits, in company formations, spent a lot of time marching under the command of drill instructors.

The peacoats issued as part of our attire were quite warm, yet buttoning the top button tight at the throat wasn’t allowed, which greatly reduced their efficiency as cold winds swept the “grinder.”

Although the lines into the “chow halls” were long, the food was quite good and the classrooms where the recruits received instruction on various Navy-oriented subjects were warm.

Evenings were mostly spent washing one’s clothes in a laundry. Any articles of clothing not properly stowed in small lockers were tossed onto the floor of the barracks during “inspections.”

But the cold nights and the cold marching took their toll, and many recruits incurred some type of throat infection which turned their saliva bloody.

And what was the Navy’s answer to this? Penicillin … tablets of which were amply passed out to all hands each evening.

(I developed an allergy to penicillin as a result of this.)

Although I did not develop a throat condition as apparently did others in my company, I did come down with a respiratory illness. The close contact the recruits had with each other could well have worsened the disease infection rate.

I was ill to some degree when my reprieve from Bainbridge came through in the form of orders to OCS at Newport, R.I. (I’m afraid a letter from a certain U.S. senator to the Navy may have influenced this marked shift in my Navy training.)

But while on leave home in Erie where I had resumed some of my usual outdoor activities, I became seriously ill as I had not sufficiently recovered from Bainbridge. After my illness has subsided, our family doctor said that I had probably had virus pneumonia.

After my recovery, I did make my way (by train) to Newport, arriving a few days late due to the pneumonia.

Although the program was quite difficult and there was a fair amount of attrition, there was no cold windswept “grinder” at Newport, and the barracks there were quite warm. The cadets at Newport, including myself, got through the four months free of illness

There were also no “the smoking lamp is lit” calls at Newport as there were occasionally at the Bainbridge barracks. (I am a repentant ex-smoker.)

Although many years have now passed, I still believe that the way the Navy disregarded the health of its recruits at Bainbridge that winter was close to unconscionable.

I made it through OCS (but with admitted difficulty) and most likely could have successfully completed Bainbridge.

But my health at that time did put the latter in doubt, and this could well have been the case for others who were there that cold winter as well — which hardly seems to have been a sensible way to have run a training facility.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.

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