Pentagon Pushes Back Against Claims It Has Not Done Enough to Protect Troops from Coronavirus

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks to reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo

Pentagon officials are pushing back against criticism — mostly from Democrat lawmakers — that the department has not acted fast or done enough to protect troops from coronavirus despite relatively low hospitalizations.

For example, former House impeachment manager Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) told The Hill last week, “I think the Pentagon didn’t take this seriously as fast as they should have.” He added: “I just don’t have confidence, sitting here right now today, that there is enough of a will at the top.”

However, a look at a timeline posted Monday on the Pentagon’s website showed the Pentagon began responding to the coronavirus threat in late January when members of Congress were still engrossed in the impeachment trial of President Trump.

On January 30, the same day the White House established its coronavirus task force, the Pentagon sent out its first health protection guidance that recommended following Centers for Disease Control guidelines. That same day, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command restricted travel to China.

The next day, on January 31, President Trump ordered travel restrictions from China, a move was slammed as xenophobic and too extreme by some Democrats and media outlets, as detailed by the Heritage Foundation’s Lyndsey Fifield.

On February 1, Defense Secretary approved a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff executive-order designating U.S. Northern Command as the department synchronizer on response efforts, according to the timeline.

Congress would not wrap up its impeachment trial until February 5. The House Foreign Affairs Committee held its first hearing that same day on the coronavirus.

On February 7, the Pentagon updated its health protection guidance. On February 9, it stood up a crisis management team to assist Northcom on response efforts.

Meanwhile, lead impeachment manager and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) did not hold his committee’s first hearing on the coronavirus until February 10.

The Pentagon was also engaged in efforts to help evacuate citizens overseas. On February 17, the Pentagon evacuated Americans aboard the infected Grand Princess cruise ship, and on February 21, approved additional DOD sites for evacuees.

On February 25, the Pentagon issued its second force health protection guidance, and on February 28, stood up the DOD coronavirus task force — which has met daily since then.

On March 8, the DOD undersecretary for personnel and readiness issued guidance to civilian employees, and on March 9, it authorized 16 labs to test for coronavirus. On March 10, the Pentagon issued a third health protection guidance.

It was not even until March 11 that the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. That day, the Pentagon issued a 60-day travel restriction to certain countries.

On March 15, the Pentagon raised health protection measures at its facilities and on March 19, it issued a 60-day halt in domestic travel.

However, the Pentagon has faced criticism for not issuing department-wide guidance halting activities such as recruiting, training, and other activities where troops were gathered together.

The recent spread of coronavirus aboard an aircraft carrier deployed to the Pacific fueled criticism that the Pentagon was not doing enough as Navy commanders had allowed the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt to conduct a port visit in Vietnam in early March.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has defended his approach of leaving it up to commanders to do what is best to keep their troops safe.

“There seems to be this narrative out there that we should just shut down the entire United States military and address the problem that way,” he said at a White House briefing last week.

“That’s not feasible. We have a mission. Our mission is to protect the United States of America and our people, and so we live and work in cramped quarters, whether it’s an aircraft carrier, a submarine, a tank, a bomber. It’s the nature of our business,” he said.

So far, the number of troops who have been hospitalized for coronavirus has remained relatively low at 56 as of Wednesday.

And to date, only one service member has died, a 57-year-old Army National Guard member who had pre-existing health conditions and was not activated at the time of his death.

And Pentagon officials argue that they have issued plenty of guidance from the top when feasible.

Pentagon Chief Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman on Friday pointed to the restrictions on global and domestic travel and the stopping of a number of overseas exercises.

“So we did slow down. On certain things we pulled back and decided that for now that the risk from those activities was greater than the reward, and that the risk may be short-term,” he said.

He pushed back against suggestions the Pentagon needed to do more.

“Something that has been a recurrent thing that’s popped up — and it seems to be this belief that the best way for the Department of Defense to defeat COVID 19 is for us to stand down and to stop operations around the world. One, that’s not going to happen. Two, we don’t believe that’s necessary,” he said.

He argued:

We have got millions of people around the world. We are at 400 bases in 150 countries in 50 states. Each have different missions. What may work in a training base or in an airlift base may not work in a sub, may not work in a bomber wing, may not work in a missile silo.

… I think the secretary would agree that in some cases there may be some commanders who need a little bit more guidance than others. And the Chain of Command will work that out.

The Pentagon has strived to continue its missions at the same time it has been called upon to put forth extraordinary efforts to support the whole-of-government response to fight the coronavirus.

Today, the Pentagon has deployed two 1,000-bed Navy hospital ships to New York City and Los Angeles, deployed at least three Army field hospitals, converted the Javits Center and other large arenas into additional hospital space in multiple cities, and called up thousands of reservists and retired veterans to serve.

It has deployed more than 400 doctors, 1,000 nurses, and 60 respiratory therapists, with an additional 350 doctors, 500 nurses, and almost 100 respiratory therapists on the way.

It has flown three million testing swabs from Italy and 500,000 masks to the U.S., transported more than 1,400 Americans back to the U.S., and activated more than 26,000 National Guard members to help administer testing, food, and equipment delivery, setting up hospital spaces, and other tasks all across the nation.

“We balance risks to the force every day but will not stand down and will trust our commanders to do what is best for their troops. Rest assured that we are prepared to assist the Americans. We’re prepared to defend our country if necessary,” Hoffman said.

 

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