Amid the coronavirus pandemic, US troops and their families ask what's next
By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: March 22, 2020
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As the coronavirus forces bars, restaurants and schools to close across the nation, Nicole Radcliffe has grown frustrated that her husband, a Marine, and thousands of his colleagues in nonessential roles must continue to report to work on bases in North Carolina.
Commanders there have taken some precautions, such as restricting Marines and sailors returning from high-risk areas to their barracks and stressing the need for good hygiene. But Radcliffe and other concerned family members say it isn’t enough.
“While I applaud the measures that have been taken, I feel more can and should be done,” said Radcliffe, a Marine veteran who is awaiting the birth of her second child. “All appropriate measures to stop transmission should be taken. The military is not exempt from this.”
The safety concerns as the virus spreads highlight the Pentagon’s challenges in preparing for the pandemic as calls grow louder for it to take a greater role in the U.S. response.
A defense contractor who tested positive for the virus and worked at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency died Saturday, the Pentagon said. That marks the first Defense Department death associated with COVID-19.
While President Donald Trump has fashioned himself in recent days as a “wartime president” battling a new threat, defense officials warn that there are limitations to what the military can do as it safeguards national security and tries to protect 1 million-plus service members from the virus.
“It is, at the end of the day, a political and soul-of-the nation issue when it comes to how much to pull in the military, and in what ways,” said Kathleen H. Hicks, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
About 7,300 National Guardsmen spread across all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia have been activated so far, military officials said in a statement Sunday. They are performing tasks that range from teaching others how to wear protective equipment to flying testing swabs from Italy. Tens of thousands of Guardsmen eventually could be called upon, officials say, a major commitment for a force whose members usually have civilian jobs.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the department will make its laboratories available to test civilians, and senior Army officials have said they have a plan in place to increase testing capacity from 810 samples per day to more than 16,000. But the timeline for doing so is not yet clear, said Lt. Gen. Scott Dingle, the Army’s surgeon general.
The Navy’s two hospital ships, the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, are being prepared for deployments in the coming days, Trump announced last week. But neither is designed to handle virus patients because of their open floor plans, so the military has offered them to treat other illnesses and injuries to free up bed space in civilian hospitals. The Comfort, promised to New York, is not expected to arrive for a few weeks.
The military will make available 5 million N95 respirator masks and 2,000 ventilators from its strategic reserves. But that amounts to a small percentage of the equipment needed in a fight for which experts have said a few billion respirators could be required. Defense officials have not said whether more are available.
The commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, detailed an ambitious plan to convert hotels, dormitories and facilities into makeshift hospitals in New York and other cities where there is need, relying on money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But the Army Corps of Engineers, a contracting agency comprising tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers, cannot be involved in each city, and states will be required to find doctors, nurses and other people to staff facilities, he said.
Amid the planning, senior defense officials have sought to stamp out unsubstantiated rumors on social media that the Trump administration could federalize the National Guard, effectively taking over control from governors, to enforce lockdowns or quarantines.
“I hear unfounded rumors about #National Guard troops supporting a nationwide quarantine,” Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, tweeted Friday. “Let me be clear: There has been no such discussion.”
Meanwhile, the number of coronavirus cases in the military continues to rise. The Defense Department said that as of Friday morning, 67 service members, 15 civilian employees, 26 dependents and 16 contractors had COVID-19.
Military officials reported numerous individual cases since, although no updated numbers were available Sunday.
Senior defense officials have unveiled a cascading series of new protective measures, including an announcement on Friday that the Army will close all recruiting stations and will rely solely on “virtual recruiting” online.
Senior defense officials also suspended nearly all nonessential travel for eight weeks beginning March 13, limited access to its military installations and even relaxed grooming standards for sailors so they do not need haircuts as frequently.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, announced Friday a new 14-day quarantine for all troops before they deploy to protect forces already in the region.
But other protective steps have been scuttled, at least for now.
In North Carolina, after military spouses expressed concerns on Facebook, the commanding general of Camp Lejeune responded in a memo Friday.
“I know there is concern over why our installations remain open especially when whole cities have been ordered to shut down,” Maj. Gen. Julian D. Alford wrote. “We can still be open and meet our mission of providing support to our operating forces and their families, as long as we do it safely and responsibly by adhering to the recommendations of our Public Health Emergency Officers.”
That doesn’t make sense to Radcliffe.
“Why keep nonessential personnel at work and possibly risk the lives of these spouses and children? It is pointless and disappointing,” she said. “I expect more out of military leadership, especially given the commander in chief’s advisement to isolate yourselves if at all possible.”
A Defense Department employee who works in the Camp Lejeune area, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said many contractors and civilian employees continue to report to work, operating flight simulators in close quarters with Marines and performing other tasks.
A military planning document obtained by The Washington Post shows that senior Army and Navy officials discussed stopping the training of all recruits, but the Pentagon rejected the idea last week, citing concerns about detrimental effects to the military.
“We operate our training facilities year-round to keep up with our need to recruit new military members,” said Jonathan Rath Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesman. “Shutting down training for an extended period could cause a gap in our personnel pipeline that would take time to clear.”
Senior defense officials have declined to issue a blanket prohibition against commanders’ convening large groups of soldiers, despite reports that such activities continue. One Army officer, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said a commander gathered 70 soldiers in a room at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Tuesday and told them that social distancing applies to social gatherings and not anything related to work.
Esper, asked about whether he would ban the gatherings, said the “short answer is no.”
“My view is the commanders have the authorities they need to take whatever precautions … while at the same time ensuring the readiness of the troops and the capabilities of our formations,” he said.
Hoffman said Friday evening that the defense secretary “is not going to second guess” those commanders.
“One of the realities of the military is that there is not a lot of room for social distancing in a missile silo, a B-2 cockpit or some other mission-critical situations, but we balance risk with our national security mission demands,” he said.
Pentagon officials have had frequent conversations in recent days with U.S. military officials in South Korea, where the virus struck in January. The Defense Department has said the response there — which included close coordination with South Korean officials and robust attempts to speak to service members and families — is a model for other senior commanders to follow. One service member there has tested positive so far.
Army Lt. Gen. Michael Bills, the commanding general of the 8th Army in South Korea, said in an interview that he has three meetings per day to discuss coronavirus issues. The new travel restrictions allow some transfers, he said, but require approval from a senior officer.
Bills had approved 135 exceptions to the policy to allow travel through Friday night, including one for an officer adopting a child in South Korea. Other troops will be kept in South Korea, in part because the force there cannot be too shorthanded.
“It’s a culture change that we’re experiencing out here,” Bills said. “The new normal today is not the normal of the past.”