Inside The Pentagon’s Lurching Efforts To Protect Its People from the Coronavirus

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks as President Donald Trump listens during press briefing with the Coronavirus Task Force, at the White House, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Washington.

AP / Evan Vucci

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks as President Donald Trump listens during press briefing with the Coronavirus Task Force, at the White House, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Washington.

As the alarms rose in February and early March, lower-echelon commanders wondered what to do. Some servicemembers blame leaders who took their cues from the White House.

For more than two months, senior Pentagon leaders watched the novel coronavirus spread, first across China, then into the rest of the world. They said little, even as service members and lower-echelon commanders began to wonder whether the Defense Department was doing enough to protect troops, employees, dependents, and contractors.

In the last week or so, the Defense Department began implementing policies intended to stem the spread of COVID-19, including stiffer restrictions designed to protect servicemembers and civilians at its facilities worldwide. Senior officials are now advising the workforce to be prepared to stay on lock-down at least until the summer, possibly July.

But the lurching response to the global pandemic has frustrated service members, some of whom saw early delays as political. What appeared to some as a reluctance to act left individual offices, bases, and commands to set their own policies with mixed results. 

“I think the slow decision making resulted in a mixed response,” said one military officer who works in the Pentagon. “People knew what was coming down the pipe, but weren’t necessarily in a position to implement policy changes because they hadn’t received formal guidance. You don’t want to start implementing SECARMY guidance when the SECDEF may countermand it in the next 24 hours.”

“Needless to say, there was a great deal of confusion, to be sure.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper began monitoring the outbreak in mid-January, Pentagon Press Secretary Alyssa Farah said Wednesday. But publicly, senior leaders downplayed the potential impact of the virus on U.S. troops as recently as this month. On Jan. 22, Esper told reporters he had only seen news reports of the virus then raging in China and was “not tracking” its spread.

On March 2, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military was “a young demographic, healthy demographic.” 

None was as dismissive of the deadly disease as President Trump, who from January to mid-March insisted against public evidence that the United States was not at risk. Multiple military officers in the Pentagon said that as elected officials and public-health experts began sounding alarms, it appeared that senior defense leaders were afraid to implement more stringent force protection measures until the president declared a state of emergency on March 13.

On March 9, senior political officials at the Pentagon implemented “social distancing” measures during their meetings. At the time, the White House was still conducting “business as usual,” and Defense Secretary Mark Esper did not make the policy mandatory across the Defense Department.

“I believe that this was because he didn’t want to put out a policy that conflicted with the administration’s talking points at the time,” one military officer who works in the Pentagon said of Esper’s decision.

A defense official disputed that characterization as political, arguing that the Secretary’s office had sent timely guidance from the beginning and appropriately allocated responsibilities to commanders in the field. 

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to stopping the spread of this disease that could be used to stop the spread from Arlington, Va.,” the official said. 

The Readiness Trap

In the meantime, the outbreak in the United States was spiraling out from epicenters in Washington, New York, and California. The World Health Organization said this week that America could become the next epicenter of the global pandemic. 

Servicemembers and civilians at bases inside the United States began lodging complaints about the response at their post, fearful the military was putting them at risk by failing to act sooner. 

“It’s been a gradual escalation of preventative measures always weeks behind what is occurring in the civilian world with leadership waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop when it comes to the first confirmed case,” one active-duty service member in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort. Campbell, Kentucky, said Wednesday. For example, that servicemember said, training in groups of 10 or more was banned on March 19 — a few days after Trump had publicly recommended the guideline nationally — but up until then, “you would routinely see groups of 20 to 40 soldiers rucking together and working out.” Social distancing also wasn’t implemented base-wide until March 19, almost two weeks after Pentagon leadership started practicing it.

Esper and Milley have both emphasized the importance of maintaining “mission readiness” amid the pandemic.

“We’re stepping through this just like everyone else is and adjusting based on the data as it’s coming in,” Joint Staff Surgeon Gen. Paul Friedrichs told Pentagon reporters on Wednesday. “It’s a balancing act because at the end of the day: We have to balance both the health and protection of our service members with our responsibility to this nation to continue to defend it.”

“We didn’t know that the virus was going to be this big of an issue in January,” Friedrichs said later.

Those answers have frustrated some service-members, who say that health of the force should be the first tenet of readiness. 

“I have heard from flag and general officers’ mouths over the past couple of weeks: mission assurance is our No. 1 concern,” said a senior defense official who spoke to Defense One on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the Pentagon’s handling of the crisis. “Yeah, we live a life of sacrifice in uniform and the mission always comes first. But there’s a point at which if we start losing our people due to this disease, that’s going to affect mission assurance.”

An Uneven Response

On March 11, Esper put in place the first DOD-wide travel restrictions, temporarily banning movement of all civilian personnel and families traveling to, from, or through countries designated as “Level 3” locations by the CDC. But the Army had already preempted Esper in announcing the policy three days earlier.

“The Army was out front of [Office of the Secretary of Defense, or OSD] and OSD was out front of the White House,” one of the military officers who spoke to Defense One said. “We are talking just a matter of days. But obviously days matter in a pandemic.”

After Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, the Pentagon’s efforts both to assist civilian response efforts to the pandemic and its efforts to protect its own workforce appeared to accelerate. Esper on Monday upgraded the Pentagon’s health protection status to its second-highest level, placing stricter limits on access to the building, and on Wednesday he extended that status to all DOD installations globally. On Tuesday, the department announced that it will suspend all elective surgery for 60 days to conserve health-care resources and limit the spread of the virus.

The services also began to take more aggressive steps to try to contain the spread of the virus among service-members. Navy Surgeon General Bruce Gillingham said Monday that the Navy had “revised” its guidance on preventative measures. 

“We recognized early on that we were — there was feedback on — on perhaps initial confusion and so we have continued to clarify and revise that and those — that guidance goes out through a naval administrative message,” Gillingham told reporters.

The Army on Wednesday also announced that all of its installations would be upgraded to “HPCON-C,” the same health protection status as the Pentagon — a day before Esper extended the restrictions to the entire Defense Department.

But direction shifts are hard with a bureaucracy that size of the Defense Department’s, and the early delays have meant that some installations across the United States still haven’t enforced the necessary health precautions to prevent the spread of the disease. 

Still Not Up To Snuff

As of this weekend, occupancy at the Pentagon was still at over 30 percent of its normal level, according to notes from a Pentagon governance meeting obtained by Defense One. “One OSD director has been bringing in their people to the office because they don’t have telework equipment and they didn’t think they could use admin leave,” the memo read.

Thirty percent — around 8,500 on Friday — is “too many,” the memo warned. “Need to get the numbers down.” 

On Wednesday, 5,000 people had swiped into the Pentagon by 9:30 a.m.

The senior defense official also expressed frustration with the enforcement of current health protection measures. HPCON-C status is supposed to mean that individuals working in the building should be screened for potential COVID-19 symptoms. But that isn’t happening, the official said. And staff are being asked to continue to work on missions that some think should wait until the crisis has ebbed — things like preparing the services’ budget requests, which requires them to be in the building. 

“We’re really good at responding and planning even on incredibly short notice for contingency operations. So that can’t be the reason,” the official said. 

“I can only assume that there is a strong desire from someplace senior — it’s a leap of speculation to suggest it’s coming from the White House — someplace senior that: ‘Whatever you do, don’t close the Pentagon, that would just look too bad.’”

At Campbell, the 101st service-member said Wednesday, “Up until late last night we were still preparing to conduct training exercises in the name of readiness when individuals in nearly every formation on post were being sent to the quarantine barracks.”

Some commanders have taken stiffer precautions than others, in part based on their proximity to active outbreaks. Gen. Robert Abrams, the four-star commander of U.S. Forces Korea, in February placed stiff restrictions on travel off-post and visitor access to U.S. installations. He banned service-members and dependents from dining out and going to movie theaters. U.S. Forces Korea has seen just nine cases of coronavirus.

But even as of Monday, there was still no blanket policy of social distancing across the department, Esper told reporters. 

“There will be inconsistencies because every situation is unique. It’s unique by the type of unit, it’s unique by the mission, it’s unique by the location – and any other number of factors,” Esper said. “I have to trust our commanders and our senior [noncommissioned officers] are taking all the right precautions.”

Hinting at the broad scleroticism in department response, Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord was repeatedly unable to answer questions about plans to boost production of needed medical equipment during a Wednesday briefing on response efforts by the Defense Department’s industrial base.

I know COVID has been here for several weeks, but this coordination at this level of detail just started on Friday,” Lord told reporters. 

A Split With The White House? 

On Tuesday, it appeared that the White House and the Pentagon were at odds over their policy projections for the disease. 

Trump, rattled by the dire projections of economists watching the impact of the national shut-down, has begun to call for nationwide guidelines calling for Americans to stay inside their homes to be eased far sooner than public health experts say is wise. He said he wanted to see the economy “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” April 12. 

“Our people want to return to work. They will practice Social Distancing and all else, and Seniors will be watched over protectively & lovingly. We can do two things together. THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (by far) THAN THE PROBLEM!” he tweeted.

But that morning, Esper and Milley warned service-members in the digital town hall meeting to “plan for this to be a few months long at least.”

“We’re going to telework as long as necessary to ensure that we’re beyond the coronavirus crisis, if you will. Again, going back to priority number one, protecting our people,” Esper said. “It’s going to be weeks for sure, maybe months.”

Friedrichs, the Joint Staff Surgeon, said Wednesday that there is little value “in speculating on a particular date.”

As of Wednesday morning, there were 227 current cases of the coronavirus across Defense Department personnel. The department reported its first death on Saturday, a contractor who worked in the Washington, D.C. area. The Navy on Tuesday announced the first instance of coronavirus aboard a deployed U.S. ship, with three sailors on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier testing positive for the virus. On Wednesday, U.S. Special Operations Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida reported its first case. 

And on Wednesday, the Pentagon reported its first case of coronavirus in someone working inside the building. 

“Our curve is not flattening,” Friedrichs said. 

Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.

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