Navy ‘cautiously optimistic’ it will reach recruiting goals this year, despite COVID-19 challenges

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The Navy is still shooting to reach its recruiting goals this year — despite a three-week pause this spring in sending recruits to the Recruit Training Command at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s in part because the safety precautions in place have been successful, allowing the recruit classes to expand from just over 500 recruits to 750 each week, according to Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell Jr.

“We are controlling this well enough that I am very comfortable in telling the team to increase to 750 shippers beginning next week,” Nowell told reporters Friday.

For Fiscal Year 2020, the Navy’s accession goal is 40,800 personnel, and Nowell is holding out hope that the Navy can meet that target if things continue in the right direction.

“I am cautiously optimistic, but this is conditions-based,” Nowell said.

The Navy started implementing risk mitigation measures when a recruit at Great Lakes tested positive for COVID-19 in March, prompting the service to ultimately take a three-week pause sending new recruits to Recruit Training Command.

Now, the Navy is requesting recruits to isolate as part of a voluntary 14-day restriction of movement, or ROM, at home before their departure for boot camp. Recruits then undergo another 14-day ROM at the Great Wolf Lodge Water Park to prevent COVID-19 from spreading among recruits. That will continue during the summer months too. However, the water park’s amenities are off limits for the recruits.

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Risk mitigation efforts are also in place for the officer pipeline. Cmdr. Lara Bollinger, a spokesperson for Navy Recruiting Command, confirmed to Navy Times that all officer candidates must complete a 14-day ROM at home before they arrive at Officer Training Command in Newport, Rhode Island.

Likewise, Lt. Cmdr. Frederick Martin, a spokesperson for Naval Service Training Command told Navy Times that officer candidates are also conducting a separate 14-day ROM on base upon their arrival at Officer Training Command, and remain on base for the duration of their training.

The COVID-19 pandemic also forced the Navy to move to 100 percent virtual recruiting efforts, but Nowell said the Navy started to permit some recruiting stations to reopen last week. At this point, he expects no more than roughly a third of recruiters will resume working from offices at recruiting stations.

Even so, that doesn’t mean doors are wide open for potential recruits.

“It would be more like what we’re doing delivering some other essential services, where it’s ‘Hey we’re here and if you’d like to come in, let’s schedule an appointment so that we know we won’t have too many people in there at the same time, we can social distance, we’ll wear face masks, we’ll have hand sanitizer at the door,” Nowell said.

As of Friday, the Navy has reported 2,205 cases of COVID-19, however the Pentagon’s policy bars the release of COVID-19 case numbers from specific installations.

The Marine Corps is also aiming to reach its recruiting goals this year. Gunnery Sgt. Justin Kronenberg, a spokesperson for Marine Corps Recruiting Command, similarly said the Marines were “cautiously optimistic” the service would hit its target, but acknowledged that the pandemic has “posed historic challenges and they are not over yet.”

Kronenberg said recruiters are also starting to conduct in-person recruiting in areas of the U.S. where conditions are improving, and are evaluating scenarios to increase throughput those conditions become safer.

But not all services are feeling as optimistic though. For example, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein voiced concerns about the decrease in recruits the Air Force is sending to Basic Military Training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.

“I’m only taking about 50 percent of my usual recruits coming into the Air Force through basic training,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told Politico last week. “I certainly can’t sustain 50 percent until we get a vaccine. …That concerns me.”

Although Goldfein isn’t anticipating recruiting numbers will ramp back up to pre-coronavirus levels in the near future, he said the next milestone is reaching 75 percent of normal capacity at Basic Military Training in the coming months.

The Pentagon has recorded more than 5,500 cases of COVID-19 among service members.

Military Times reporter Shawn Snow contributed to this report.

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