Updated April 7, 2020
There have been many significant developments, and even some controversy regarding the Department of Defense’s response to the coronavirus and COVID-19 outbreak.
Navy Captain Brett E. Crozier, Captain of the USS Theordore Roosevelt was relieved of command after writing a letter pleading for help with his subordinates and shipmates who tested positive on board the Roosevelt while it was underway. That letter wound up being seen by a wide range of people, created a firestorm on Capitol Hill, and notably the Acting Secretary of the Navy, Thomas B. Modly, made further headlines courtesy of some name-calling aimed at Crozier. And at the tail end of the matter, Former USS Roosevelt Captain Brett Crozier tested positive for coronavirus.
Thomas B. Modly Military Service
Acting SecNav, Thomas B. Modly, served in the United States Navy as an UH-1N pilot and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1983 with a Bachelor of Science, with distinction and left active duty in 1990 to attend business school and to pursue a career in the private sector.
On April 6, 2020, the commander of U.S. Forces Japan declared a public health emergency for U.S. military bases near Tokyo.
April 6, 2020 was also the day that news stories surfaced referencing TRADOC, also known as Army Training and Doctrine Command, and the temporary suspension of the “movement of soldiers to basic combat training because of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
A pause in Basic Training is a significant move; other branches of the military have responded differently where basic training requirements are concerned.
The Air Force, for example, on its official site for Joint Base Lackland-San Antonio (where Air Force Basic Training is held) states that boot camp will continue as it is deemed mission essential. That said, new recruits arriving to the base during the coronavirus epidemic are subject to restricted movement, and are kept separately from other troops assigned to the base such as those in technical training (the next step after graduating from Air Force boot camp).
There is also evidence that the military, while dealing with shelter-in-place orders, restricted movement, and other issues civilians must also endure, is responding to the crisis in ways many in the private sector are. That means pitching in, helping where they can, and staying as isolated as possible.
What are military members doing to help? The Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, normally tasked with planning, deploying, tracking, and completing airlift missions around the world made headlines with its ninth scheduled delivery of critical medical supplies from overseas to the United States.
Some U.S. Special Forces unit members are involved in manufacturing personal protective ensemble (PPE) gear such as face masks, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is involved in a variety of efforts to combat and contain the spread of COVID-19 including site assesment operations for alternative treatment and testing locations.
How busy has the Army Corps of Engineers been in that effort? As of March 27, there were 114 site assessment requests submitted to the Corps; as of an April 3, 2020 DoD update, those numbers rose to 750.
What DoD Does In A National Crisis Like COVID-19
What does the Department of Defense do about a crisis such as the coronavirus outbreak? Headlines abound, including “Pentagon races to counter coronavirus threat on military forces.”
And then there’s the quite juicy, “Pentagon denies asking combatant commanders to give advance notice before responding to coronavirus concerns.”
So what exactly does the government DO in situations like a coronavirus epidemic?
One of the most significant developments occurred March 27, 2020 when the President of the United States issued an Executive Order calling up members of the Ready Reserve and “certain members of the Individual Ready Reserve to active duty.
This was done by invoking the National Emergencies Act, as well as Proclamation 9994 of March 13, 2020, Declaring a National Emergency Concerning the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak, which was issued to declare a national emergency.
According to the text of the executive order, Pentagon officials are reviewing the number of National Guard, Reservists, and members of the Individual Ready Reserve troops to bring into active service.
According to some sources, these activations will focus on troops and units with medical capabilities that may be experiencing a critical shortage in virus-affected areas such as New York, California, Washington State, Illinois, Louisiana, and elsewhere.
The executive order specifically authorizes the Secretary of the Army, Secretary of the Navy, and other service Secretaries (including the Coast Guard) to call members of the IRR, and Ready Reserve to active duty for a period of time, “not to exceed 24 consecutive months”.
There is also a staffing limit; the number is restricted to “such units, and individual members of the Ready Reserve under the jurisdiction of the Secretary concerned, not to exceed 1,000,000 members on active duty at any one time”.
Remember, the total number of call-ups and activations may depend greatly on mission requirements in the affected areas but U.S. Army North is reported to have activated some 800 Guard and Reserve troops alone.
There are many steps that may be taken and it’s important to remember that in the military chain of command, while you may see vague and confusing statements from those in the highest corridors of power, by the time a local commander has issued statements or orders on the issue? There is likely a firm policy at the unit level pending or already in effect that determines how local troops and families will carry on during such a crisis.
But there are complicating factors. Confusion and lack of planning over the official messaging re: coronavirus issues had the Oval Office contradicting subject matter experts often in the same televised briefing.
That problem seems to have led Defense Secretary Mark Esper to require combatant commanders not to make unilateral decisions about how to protect their troops WITHOUT giving advanced notice to the Pentagon. At least according to a New York Times report. And that report is not without controversy.
Whether or not you agree with the notion of such a requirement or whether you think it’s unnecessary red tape that could seriously interfere with a local command’s ability to safeguard troops and families, there’s the larger issue of whether the story is being reported correctly–the DoD accuses the NY Times of misrepresenting the terms and conditions associated with the requirement.
In a crisis that has the 24-hour news cycle spinning as hard as possible, it’s easy to succumb to hyperbole. So what exactly IS the Defense Department ready to do in such circumstances? What follows is simply a list of facts and their sources with no speculation.
The opinions of the pundits mean very little in terms of dealing with the human and financial cost of such a global problem. Hard facts, which can be hard to come by in this day and age without spin, tend to speak for themselves in times like these.
What The Department Of Defense Is Doing
The Department of Defense has issued both overseas and domestic travel guidance for all military members and their families.
Overseas travel has been suspended for at least 60 days according to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who is quoted in a press release published at Defense.gov. The sixty day stop movement order applies to all personnel (military and civilian) and affects roughly 90 thousand troops.
According to the press release, this order builds on other restricted-movement steps taken to help contain coronavirus outbreaks. It affects all aspects of foreign travel, permanent change of station moves, TDY travel, military exercises, and even deployments.
Exceptions to the stop movement order for overseas troops may be possible depending on circumstances:
- Travel by patients and medical providers for medical treatment;
- Scheduled deployments / redeployments of U.S. navy vessels and embarked units, (must be in-transit for 14 days);
- Those who “have already initiated travel”;
- Those traveling when TDY ends (while the order is in effect) are “authorized to return to their home station”.
Domestically, Federal News Network reports that roughly “11,000 soldiers and 18,000 airmen have their orders on hold” following a prior stop movement order for all domestic travel. Army officials say PCS moves have not been cancelled outright, but have been delayed instead.
Who does the travel restriction affect? All PCS and TDY travel is affected by the restriction from March 16, 2020 to May 11, 2020 at the time of this writing. The restriction is subject to revision depending on circumstances and mission requirements. At the time of this writing the travel ban includes:
- All DoD service members
- All DoD civilians
- All family members for both categories above
Exceptions may be possible in certain cases:
- Mission essential travel
- Travel is required for humanitarian reasons
- Travel is “warranted due to extreme hardship”
- Travel for medical treatment is permitted
Current DoD guidance on the travel ban includes a reminder that anyone who started travel prior to the restriction may proceed to their final destination. According to the DoD, “Individuals whose TDY ends within stop movement period may return home.”
Those who were scheduled to go on leave can only take leave within the local area according to the most current guidance at the time of this writing.
The Defense Secretary has issued a series of Force Protection Supplements designed to enhance travel safety when such travel is unavoidable.
Additional measures include pre-travel and post-travel “screening and reception procedures” and protective steps taken to protect those “transitioning to military and DoD contracted aircraft for from or to CDC Level 3 or Level 2 designated areas”.
At press time, DoD literature indicates that for DoD personnel returning to the United States from an overseas location, “There is no designated quarantine location for returning personnel.” This is relevant to those affected by force protection and screening measures.
According to the government, military personnel and families who have recently traveled through a CDC Health Advisory Level 2 or Level 3 area are directed to self-quarantine for 14 days. There is no centralized quarantine location indicated at press time.
The Stop Movement Order
March 13, 2020 was the day DoD placed a Stop Movement order on all service members, civilians, and families “traveling to, from or through Level 3 locations (as designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) will stop movement for the next 60 days”. Furthermore, a temporary ban on “concurrent travel” to affected areas is also in place.
This is a move that prevents family members from traveling with the military member to an overseas base.
This is a move that prevents family members from traveling with the military member to an overseas base.
This is a temporary change and not necessarily a cancellation of an accompanied overseas tour where the military member brings the family for the assignment.
During the Stop Movement order, family member travel “will be deferred for 60 days. As stated in the travel restriction guidance, exceptions may be granted for compelling cases where the travel is: (1) determined to be mission essential; (2) necessary for humanitarian reasons; or (3) warranted due to extreme hardship,” according to DoD literature.
Other Measures DoD Has Taken To Manage The Coronavirus Outbreak
It must be made clear that active duty United States military troops are constitutionally prevented from enforcing police actions domestically, and that what we are discussing here is how the DoD manages problems like the coronavirus as an agency.
Its internal policies and workforce protection measures are what we are discussing here, NOT the mobilization of troops at home or abroad to enforce quarantine laws or other measures.
To the best of our knowledge no such mobilizations are planned, and none are ongoing. This article focuses on how troops, civilian employees of the Defense Department, and family members are affected and under what measures.
The United States Navy has sent hospital ships to hardest-hit areas such as New York and California; USNS Comfort was sent to New York, and USNS Mercy sailed to California to help provide additional facilities for hospital systems in these areas expected to be overwhelmed by COVID-19 issues as these states approach their regional peak virus impact times.
National Guard units have been activated by state governors, and DoD facilities are being used to research virus treatment and vaccine possibilities.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working with state governors and city officials in hot zones such as New York City to set up alternate treatment and/or testing facilities and to repurpose ares like New York City’s Javits Center as alternatives to existing hospital options.
DoD Adjusts Its Remote Work Policies
As late into the Coronavirus situation as March 8, 2020, the DoD was adjusting its workplace policies to contend with the outbreak. A DoD Memorandum loosened work-from-home rules for those already authorized to perform telework (as the memorandum describes it).
The rule changes include allowing those already permitted to work from home to do so now “even if they’re also taking care of a sick child or relative in their home.”
Is that confusing? The motivation for the policy may not be clear to those not affected by it, but essentially the original rule was a measure created to prevent situations where an employee worked from home and wanted to do so as “a substitute for dependent care.” Under the looser guidelines, that concern is temporarily ignored.
That DoD memorandum also includes instructions that military exercises should be modified or “re-scoped” when the outbreak situation locally reaches the point where community transmission becomes an issue (as opposed to transmission caused by travel to an affected country).
As mentioned above, the Defense Department previously restricted all non-essential travel in certain parts of the world; non-essential travel basically means leave, certain TDYs, and even some professional military education requirements depending on the severity of travel restrictions.
The 60-day stop movement order for all overseas troops overrules the restrictions listed below which were initiated as an early measure to stop the spread of COVID-19 / coronavirus cases. Once the 60-day stop move order is lifted, it is entirely possible that the rules listed below for non-essential travel may resume unless DoD planners decide otherwise.
Prior to the 60-day travel ban, access to military bases overseas was restricted. Ships at sea that have been to the Pacific were ordered to remain at sea for two weeks, a measure described as a type of self-quarantine. Similar rules have been put into place for troops who have recently been to China according to some sources.
In Korea, troops were restricted from non-essential travel to off-post activities in public including movie theater attendance and social dining. Non-essential travel to South Korea has also been restricted.
In Italy, Army bases closed their public schools and child care centers, and Central Command has cancelled all “leave and liberty travel” within the Central Command theater of operations.
Leisure travel and ordinary activities were not the only things affected; military exercises have been cancelled in South Korea, and U.S. European Command’s General Tod Wolters informed the Senate that U.S. forces in Germany could be affected by an increase in coronavirus cases, forcing a reduction or complete halt to troop movement.
The Pentagon may well choose a phased-out end to the travel ban and previous restricted movement orders; much depends on what happens with the coronavirus in terms of possible re-infection rates and other variables.
What The DoD is Telling Employers To Do
Military readiness is a term heard again and again by new recruits and trainees. The coronavirus outbreak is definitely a test of individual and organizational readiness. In times of crisis and conflict, the “fog of war” is a variable that good troops and commanders have a healthy respect for.
Organization and planning are key to overcoming that variable, and the Department of Defense has issued guidelines via the Office of Personnel Management.
These guidelines were issued to civilians across the government, but the same organizing principles are used by military units, too. During the coronavirus problem, the federal government has directed its agencies and staff to do the following:
- Review “continuity of operation plans” to insure essential functions continue to operate in spite of the outbreak
- Update employees contact information
- Update telework agreements
- Communicate best health practices
- Create or maintain authorized supply chain/procurement procedures for health and safety equipment
Supervisors are also given added flexibility to modify scheduling, authorize remote work or alternative shifts, etc. Troops are advised to get clarification at the unit level for policies that may affect their ability to travel, go on leave, permissive TDY for house hunting, etc.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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