The U.S. Military Hasn’t Faced A Threat Like Coronavirus In A Century

Troops say commanders aren't taking the pandemic seriously, and a former Army epidemiologist says the military has "done a poor job" responding to the crisis.

U.S. troops and their families stationed across the country are growing anxious and angry over what they say is their commanders’ lackadaisical response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Marines are pissed,” said one low-level enlisted Marine stationed at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina who spoke to HuffPost recently on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.

Commanders are still requiring their subordinates to stand in close proximity during formation exercises on the base and to do physical training in the morning that involves activities like “body drags” and “fireman carries,” which require grabbing and touching other, perspiring Marines, the Marine said.

Across the country at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, an Air Force airman sent HuffPost photos of other servicemen on the base standing in formation and playing basketball together.

He also says he witnessed groups of soldiers take the Army Combat Fitness Training test together without disinfecting the required gym equipment afterward.

“The six feet of social distancing was not being enforced,” the airman said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that people maintain two yards of space between each other.

(Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images

As America edges ever closer to being the deadly epicenter of the historic coronavirus pandemic — which has already infected over 80,000 and killed over 1,000 nationwide and led to unprecedented shelter-in-place orders in multiple states — there is growing concern among troops, their families, and epidemiologists that the Department of Defense hasn’t done enough to slow the spread of the virus in the military, which includes 1.4 million active-duty service members and has historically been vulnerable to outbreaks.

The latest Defense Department figures show the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. armed forces rising fast. There were 224 confirmed cases among service members as of Wednesday morning; 81 among military employees; 67 among military dependents; and 40 among military contractors.

On Thursday, the military newspaper Task & Purpose — which has done excellent work documenting the coronavirus outbreak in the armed forces — obtained an alarming document sent by the Department of the Army at the Pentagon to all U.S. Army commands.

“Mitigation measures taken by the U.S. Army to blunt the spread of COVID-19 have proven insufficient,” the message read. “COVID-19 continues to spread geographically as the number of infected persons continues to rise.”

The document warned additional measures and actions needed to be taken to prevent the virus from spreading further, and instructed rapid response forces at bases in the U.S. and abroad to go into “Health Protection Condition Delta,” the highest level of alert.

The military has already taken many drastic measures to slow the spread of the virus — including closing schools, restaurants and other businesses on bases, and allowing service members to work from home if they’re able. But the Defense Department has also instituted a policy of “commander’s discretion” when it comes to putting troops in formation and requiring them to conduct physical training exercises.

That means that different commanders are observing ― or not observing ― matters to protect safety differently.

“The military’s dirty little secret, if you will, is that it is highly susceptible as an organization to outbreaks of particularly respiratory infectious illness.”

- Dr. Remington Nevin, a physician and former Army epidemiologist

“I can’t put out a blanket policy, if you will, that we would then apply to everybody, because every situation is different,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said earlier this week when questioned about the military’s response. “Tell me how I do six feet distancing in an attack submarine. Or how do I do that in a bomber with two pilots sitting side by side?”

During a virtual town hall, Esper encouraged commanders to “avoid putting a large number of people in small rooms” and to “get that social distancing as best you can.”

Esper’s comments came amid multiple reports of commanders not taking the threat of the coronavirus too seriously. Last week, ProPublica reported that Navy leadership aboard the USS Boxer, a San Diego-based ship, crammed 80 senior enlisted sailors and officers into a small room to hold a meeting about, ironically, the coronavirus crisis.

It’s a difficult task for the Defense Department to strike a balance between military readiness and keeping troops safe from the virus, said Dr. Gregory Gray, a former navy epidemiologist who is now a professor at Duke University’s Global Health Institute Division of Infectious Diseases.

While it’s tough to avoid close contact in the military, particularly during training, ignoring social distancing practices could also put service members at risk. “This is a very real threat to military personnel,” Gray said, noting that military reserve units are being deployed across the country to fight the pandemic.

“You know, usually they go in harm’s way, generally with fighting a war with weapons in mind. But here’s another example on how they’re going to be mobilized to fight an emerging pathogen.”

Men gargle with salt and water as a preventive measure against the influenza epidemic at Camp Dix, New Jersey, in September 1918.
Men gargle with salt and water as a preventive measure against the influenza epidemic at Camp Dix, New Jersey, in September 1918.
Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images

The U.S. military has faced the threat of disease before. The 1918 Spanish flu outbreak killed nearly 700,000 Americans, including 45,000 U.S. soldiers, and is widely believed to have spread across this country in large part due to the mass movement of U.S. troops in and out of bases.

Dr. Remington Nevin, a physician and former Army epidemiologist, told HuffPost that the “U.S. military has done a poor job of operationalizing the lessons from the 1918” pandemic.

“The military’s dirty little secret, if you will, is that it is highly susceptible as an organization to outbreaks of particularly respiratory infectious illness,” Dr. Nevin said. Without the rapid development of vaccines and other countermeasures, he added, “military personnel are at significantly increased risk by nature of the military environment.”

Still, Nevin sounded some notes of cautious optimism. The bulk of U.S. service members are young and healthy, he noted, and are thus less likely to be killed by the virus.

Plus, he said, “the US military always does the right thing, after it has exhausted every other alternative. And we’re going to see that again with the military’s response to COVID-19. It will relearn its hard-won lessons. It will in due course.”

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