What You Need To Know: US Military's Coronavirus Response
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Meghann Myers, Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times, speaks with Virginia Prescott, host of On Second Thought, about concerns among military personnel about coronavirus cases on Georgia bases after the firing of Navy Captain Brett Crozier, and the fallout at the Pentagon.
There has been concern here in Georgia, where a number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 on bases were being reported until late March, around the time the order to cease reporting was issued by Defense Secretary Mike Esper. First of all, what was his reason for that?
So this started coming up about three weeks ago. And here in the Pentagon, we thought it was more going to be about combat command. So like Southern Command, Central Command and Pacific Command about not reporting those numbers regionally, because there's concern that our enemies, as they are, if they knew that there was an outbreak in Afghanistan, for example, then they would take that opportunity to try to hit us harder, knowing that we've been a little bit more weakened there. And then that was expanded to installations because, you know, we have lots of lots of installations in Germany.
And so they decided, we don't want you to talk about where outbreaks are. We will talk about, at a certain level, who's having the hardest time, and department-wide, how many cases we have. But we don't want to localize any of this and give anybody any ideas.
So it’s an aggregate number reported now instead of individual numbers by installations, which means that the tally of confirmed COVID-19 cases released here by the Georgia Department of Health does not reflect infections on military installations, where there are hundreds and thousands of people, including active duty military, their families and civilians. So what is the Department of Defense doing to protect active duty military and others on bases?
So the thing is, every time somebody tests positive in the military, they send a second sample off to the CDC. And the CDC has the reports of everywhere. So when you see those heat maps in like The New York Times, you can see where all of the cases are. The military numbers are included in those. But for instance, you know—Fort Benning is in Columbus, Georgia. If you were going to try to zero in on that map and look at Columbus, Georgia, you wouldn't know who in those cases is on Fort Benning and who is just, you know, in the local community. Same thing for Fort Stewart. You wouldn't know which of those are military personnel. But the numbers are still there. So there is sort of—if you want to backtrack, you can kind of look for an outbreak in a military town and assume that a good number of that will include service members, their family, civilians who work on an installation, that sort of thing.
They're living, in many cases, in close quarters. And certainly when they're doing active duty they often are in close quarters. So how about the flow of people inside and outside of installations? Should surrounding communities be concerned, for example?
So they haven't changed their health protection conditions in installations all throughout the military so that only essential personnel are coming on every day. So that should be stemming some of the flow of people coming on and off base. But as you pointed out, there are a lot of people who are assigned to that post that they live in town. And so they should be following the rules, whether there's a shelter in place or whatever going on in that city.
The other thing is that the military has now mandated that if you can't keep a 6-foot distance at work, you must wear a mask. So I'm in the Pentagon. There's no one really around the press corps right now. But if you are in a space where things are much closer together, they're wearing masks. Same thing would be going on these Army posts and these Air Force bases in Georgia.
There are particular challenges, of course, for members of the armed forces who are essential to ongoing national defense but are also increasingly being called upon to support Health and Human Services and FEMA during this crisis. How do you think that is being managed, especially after questions of whether or not management was doing the right thing at the top in the last month?
So that is a big calculation the Defense Department has to do, because not only do they have millions of people under them whose lives they are responsible for and policies that they have to put out in order to protect them, they have to keep mission readiness, keep training going so that when this is over in six months, a year, they don't have a giant hole of new people and people who should have been at this point in the training pipeline or this point in a deployment cycle and they're not because they stopped doing everything.
And like you mentioned, the other thing is that they are now being called on to respond to this. There are active duty field hospitals that are going up to New York or going to Seattle. And it doesn't take away from their mission, per se because they're doing what they're supposed to be doing. But if they had been preparing for a deployment, they're now not prepared for that deployment. They're actually doing the job somewhere here. So they have to balance all of these things and not just do what they are assigned to do but try to help everybody else at the same time.
Meghann, I know you used to report for the Navy Times and the problems have been exacerbated in the Navy. We're now looking at our third leader since November in the Navy. How about those in the other branches of the armed forces: the Army, the Marines, the Air Force? Do you think there's a lot of faith that leadership is looking out for them, especially at a really insecure time?
The interesting thing about it is that up here in the Pentagon, there's lots of policy guidance. They're trying to do town halls to really connect with people on the ground. But in the military, it's really about the lower-level leaders because they get the policy guidance, then they have to enact it and they have to be accountable for it. And we're getting a lot of stories from troops where it seems like business as usual at their units, even when they've had a case in their units, they feel like their commanders are not taking it super serious, that they're just sending that person home. So the real question is going to be whether those lower-level leaders will take accountability for this and help stop the spread, because up here in the Pentagon, they can, until they're blue in the face, talk about social distancing, talk about wearing masks, but they can't go down and babysit those units. And those units are going to be the ones who are responsible for keeping it under control.
What do you think the firing of Brett Crozier and the response was how it spun out afterward? What do you think that has done for morale for people on the ground, in the rank and file and their families?
I think it definitely is a concern, not just because he spoke out during a heated moment during something that he felt was a crisis, but in the military, there are rules for everything. There's a very clear chain of command. If you have a problem, there's very clear guidance for how you handle that. But I think a lot of people, especially in this case, feel like this is a crisis. He can't just follow the rules. He needed to do something. He needed to make a splash for better or for worse. And I think a lot of leaders would like to hope that they can retain that card in the back of their pocket and not lose their careers over it, because ultimately, globally, everybody thinks that was the right thing to do, even though it was out of the traditional way of handling this. They're not used to handling something like this. Obviously, some traditions are going to have to go out the window.