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In A Virtual Townhall, A Military Community Shares Its Coronavirus Concerns

From left, Gen. John DeGoes, Brig. Gen. Laura Lenderman, and Chief Master Sgt. Chris Lantagne listen to a speaker at a virtual townhall meeting at Joint Base San Antonio.
Carson Frame
American Homefront
From left, Gen. John DeGoes, Brig. Gen. Laura Lenderman, and Chief Master Sgt. Chris Lantagne listen to a speaker at a virtual townhall meeting at Joint Base San Antonio.

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting every aspect of American life - including military life.

This wasn’t your typical town hall meeting, because only a few people were actually there. A tan-walled meeting room at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Air Force Base served as temporary video studio.

Base leaders sat at a long table facing an elaborate camera setup. Command logos were stuck on the wall behind them. Via Facebook Live, they discussed the effects of the caronavirus pandemic on the base and took questions from the public. The hourlong meeting attracted more than 31,000 views.

Questions concerned several aspects of military life, including how base leaders are attempting to prevent coronavirus infections in military childcare centers, how military ceremonies will be affected by the pandemic, and whether the base had a plan to keep the virus from spreading through the military's famously cramped barracks.

"If one case gets through, it's much easier to transmit to the entire pipeline," said Maj. Gen. John DeGoes, commander of Lackland's 59th Medical Wing. "If many get infected at once, it would really impair the mission."

The 37th Training Wing, which administers basic military training, has increased sanitation protocols in certain facilities.

"The standard cleaning within the barracks continues," said Col. Michael Newsom of the 37th Training Wing. "We just did an increase in regards to ensuring the sanitation of traveled areas - stairwells, things of that nature. The dining facilities are always cleaned three times a day."

Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland is home to the Air Force's only enlisted recruit training program, which graduates about 40,000 new airmen each year. Base liberty has been modified for those trainees. They now must remain primarily in dormitory and eating areas, rather than wandering the base.

Incoming Air Force recruits to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland are being screened for coronavirus with a series of questions.

"One of the harder decisions that we’ve made"

Part of the base's force protection strategy involves preventing large gatherings of people.

Town hall viewers asked several questions about the March 10 Air Force decision to prevent families from attending basic military training graduations.

The ceremonies take place weekly, and they’re often the last chance parents have to see their children before they head off to their next assignment.

Lenderman said people can watch a livestream of the ceremonies instead.

"This was a really hard decision - probably one of the harder decisions that we’ve made in my command here," said Base Commander Laura Lenderman. "Our heart goes out to everyone affected by this, but we also have a responsibility to our nation and the community outside of our fenceline."

It's not just the trainees who will be affected. Hundreds of more senior airmen live on Lackland, many of them with their families. The base is basically a city, with shopping areas, health clinics, schools and childcare facilities. And many military parents are concerned about the health of their kids.

For instance, Lenderman was asked what would happen if a coronavirus infection cropped up in a military daycare center.

"They’ll follow the protocols in terms of notifications," she said. "They’ll do some tracing, which is determining who that child came in contact with."

Base officials say more than 20 military medical facilities on and off base are preparing for coronavirus patients. The command team at Joint Base San Antonio ran through a pandemic scenario just a few months ago.

But Lenderman concedes that’s different from fighting a real pandemic.

"This is a new virus, it's a new disease that's impacting the world simultaneously," she said. "So it's an evolving mission set."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Military and Veterans Reporter - Texas Public Radio
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