What the U.S. military is telling troops about how to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is all over the map.
The Pentagon continues to insist that commanders can determine the best approach to stopping the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in their units, resulting in confused messaging to troops and their families that often conflicts with federal guidelines to stop the virus' spread.
Army recruits have been told they are safer in the fresh air than in their barracks. Marines have been told they still need to report to work even though their children's schools are closed. And one Army commander assured soldiers and families that they should not be worried about coronavirus because young, healthy people are at a low risk.
Meanwhile, the number of U.S. troops confirmed positive for the virus nearly doubled from 67 on Friday to 133 on Monday. Another 41 service members had tested positive for the disease by Tuesday. Currently, the U.S. has had more than 46,000 total confirmed cases and more than 590 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, edging out only China and Italy with more cases.
“This is a telling indicator of leadership failure,” one Army officer told Task & Purpose on condition of anonymity. “Unfortunately, the outcome has about a two week delay,” the officer said, referring to the delay in reporting on spread of the virus.
“This week, it's going to get bad,” said Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams. “Right now, there are not enough people out there who are taking this seriously.”
“Everyone needs to act as if they have the virus right now,” Adams said. “So, test or no test, we need you to understand you could be spreading it to someone else. Or you could be getting it from someone else. Stay at home.”
That has not been the policy of the Department of Defense, which has given wide latitude to subordinate units through a policy of “commander's discretion,” leading to worry among family members and soldiers who can see for themselves the civilian world around them changing as activity on their bases largely remains the same.
“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 Monday in response to questioning about “inconsistencies” in DoD guidance on social distancing and travel restrictions being carried out at lower levels. “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?”
The next day, Esper urged the force during a live-streamed town hall to take more proactive measures: “If you can avoid putting a large number of people in a small rooms, you should do it. Hold your meeting outside or maybe meet in smaller groups. Get that social distancing as best you can.”
Esper also encouraged officers and senior enlisted leaders to privately voice their concerns about not enough social distancing happening within their commands.
While having everyone stay at home may not be feasible for most military units, some have taken more proactive steps than others. The number of people physically working at the Pentagon is down by about 60%, according to Esper. And at many bases, restaurants have moved to take-out only, gyms and movie theaters have closed, and religious services have been curtailed.
Still, some service members expressed concern to Task & Purpose as units around the nation continued to conduct training as normal and work in close proximity. Most spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
As Task & Purpose reported last week, a number of military units held all-hands meetings with troops packed into theaters days after the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a global pandemic and the Trump administration urged Americans to “avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people.”
Despite the Pentagon stopping most military moves to limit the virus' spread on March 13, flexibility has been given to subordinate units such as II Marine Expeditionary Force, which allowed its 47,000 Marines and sailors to travel up to 250 miles away from their bases in the Carolinas over the past weekend just like it was any other, according to documents obtained by Task & Purpose.
“No one in senior leadership seems to acknowledge or even care this virus is even real,” a source told Task & Purpose. “Every commander is flailing trying to interpret things however they want. It's dangerous.”
There have been 297 positive cases so far in North Carolina.
Meanwhile at Camp Pendleton, California, a source told Task & Purpose their unit held two formations last week as its commander, a lieutenant colonel, brought troops in close to him to talk about the spread of the virus despite social distancing being preached at the highest level of the Corps since early March. “It was an irony that was seemingly lost on our leadership,” the source said.
Additionally, the source added, the unit's sergeant major chastised Marines and sailors who had children they might have trouble taking care of since schools have been shut down across California.
“We had to 'figure it the fuck out,” the source quoted the sergeant major saying, who added that there was no excuse to miss work since “it was a failing on our part if it was a struggle for us because 'we're adults.'”
On Friday, I Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Pendleton, said its service members were being restricted to leave and liberty in the “local area only,” though that allows up to 200 miles over a weekend, a Marine official said. There have been 1,733 positive cases in California, up from 335 a week ago.
“However, all personnel have been directed to follow the state of California's 'stay at home' order when not performing their essential duties,” 2nd Lt. Brian Tuthill, a MEF spokesman, told Task & Purpose. “This may include refueling personal vehicles, buying groceries, obtaining medical care, and other essential actions.”
My guidance on the impact of COVID on the force: To be clear, our #1 priority is the health & safety of our Marines and their families; our current mission is to seize control and prevent the spread of COVID-19. I know your Commanders feel the same. (1/2)
— David H. Berger (@CMC_MarineCorps) March 24, 2020
'You are not invincible'
While the Centers for Disease Control continues to study the virus, it's currently believed to spread through people who are in close contact with each other. And while older people and those with preexisting conditions are at greater risk, the military — mainly comprised of younger, physically fit Americans — are not immune to the virus' spread or its impact.
“Data from many countries clearly show that people under 50 make up a significant proportion of patients requiring hospitalization,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said Friday.
“Today, I have a message for young people: you are not invincible,” he added. “This virus could put you in the hospital for weeks, or even kill you. Even if you don’t get sick, the choices you make about where you go could be the difference between life and death for someone else.”
That assessment from medical experts stands in stark contrast to messages being pushed out to some troops and their families. The Army's 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, recently downplayed concerns about the virus in a message to families.
“You and your soldier are currently in almost no danger from the coronavirus,” a post on Instagram from the unit said. “Most people who get sick from the coronavirus have symptoms about the same as having the flu. Almost all young, healthy individuals will not even need to go to the hospital.”
In fact, COVID-19 is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government's top expert on infectious diseases. Additionally, the virus appears to have a five-day incubation period, The New York Times reported, when people usually have mild symptoms that could be mistaken for a cold. At that point, the virus is highly communicable.
When the post from 3rd ABCT first appeared, there were less than 200 positive cases in Texas. Now there are more than 350. On Monday, a press release from another base in the state, Fort Hood, said a soldier in their thirties assigned to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment was among those who had tested positive, along with a retiree under the age of 50 living in Killeen.
“The coronavirus is a serious global and national concern that thankfully is not nearly as prevalent in Central Texas,” Army Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt, deputy commander of Fort Hood, wrote last week. “What we do not know is when this viral threat will diminish. As a consequence, the Army Team has taken steps to help contain the virus and manage its impact.”
Efflandt urged soldiers and families to take proactive measures such as social distancing and practicing good hygiene. “You'll not only protect yourself and your family, but you'll protect those around you as well,” Efflandt said.
Soon after, however, the base's official Instagram account jokingly made light of social distancing, as did a colonel and command sergeant major of a unit on the base, suggesting the effort to stop the spread is not being taken as seriously as it is at higher levels. Junior service members have responded in kind, with laugh-worthy coronavirus memes abound in the military social media ecosystem, amid mild anxiety and tips on working out under quarantine.
“Despite the pandemic, our priorities and fundamental tasks stay consistent, but I challenge every leader to think critically about how we execute in this current environment,” Lt. Gen. Pat White, commanding general of Fort Hood, wrote in a recent letter to soldiers and families. “Lethal formations require lethal soldiers. Sick soldiers are not lethal soldiers. The global risk of conflict remains heightened, and we must be ready for any mission at any moment. Therefore, preservation of the force and slowing the virus' spread in our ranks is mission critical.”
“We can't afford to lose entire units at once to this virus,” White added, urging guidelines to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread. “Just like in our training for combat, the most effective units will be those that can incorporate these basics into everything they do.”
'Fresh air and open spaces limit the threat of exposure'
On Friday, the commander of the Army's 198th Training Brigade wrote in a letter that he had cleared the barracks and had decided to move more soldiers going through initial infantry training into the field instead of remaining in the more populated areas of Fort Benning, Georgia, where approximately 70,000 soldiers and civilians work.
“This decision was deliberate and cautious because of COVID-19's risk to our training population,” wrote Col. William Voorhies.
“My reasoning for maximizing field time is because fresh air and open spaces limit the threat of exposure. … when the units return from the field, the soldiers and cadre will observe good hygiene discipline and cleaning standards during their rotations back to the barracks.”
A much different story has unfolded at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, a state where there have been nearly 2,000 reported cases. A soldier assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division told Army Times that, “in terms of [physical training] and daily battle rhythm, absolutely nothing has changed.”
In Alaska, the commander of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson has declared a public health emergency due to “sustained community transmission” affecting the base. Alaska has reported 36 total cases.
Yes, YOU. Practice social distancing. It’s going to be different in every unit. We’re still going to train, but we MUST do everything we can to protect our People and #KILLtheVirus No formations just to put out info. No company-size formation runs. No one-size-fits all solutions. pic.twitter.com/1iCHndZV2N
— SMA Michael Grinston (@USArmySMA) March 23, 2020
Some units such as the Army's 1st Brigade Combat Team, however, have scaled back training by reducing the number of troops participating. “We know there is a growing concern for our soldiers regarding training,” a Friday update from the unit said.
Then there's South Korea, where tens of thousands of American troops and their families work and live. Just nine people affiliated with the U.S. military command there tested positive for COVID-19 in what was once considered a virus “hotspot.” Officials there aggressively limited off-base travel and visitor access, banned large gatherings, and rapidly pushed out information to soldiers and families.
“I’ve told everyone: If you want to kill this virus, it requires a fundamental change in lifestyle,” Gen. Robert Abrams told reporters. “And we are all living this fundamental change — there are no exceptions for rank or position.”
The U.S. now has five times the number of positive cases than South Korea, where in addition to the military response, swift government action and widespread testing has been able to reverse the upward trend of the pandemic.
Still, with a variety of different approaches to the pandemic being tried at subordinate units, according to one soldier, there seems to be a disconnect between what the top leadership says and how it is filtered down to lower levels.
“A lot of units still think going to the field to train is a priority,” the soldier told Task & Purpose. “Leadership is not wanting to hurt their [officer evaluation ratings] so they are doing nothing in hopes higher will make decisions for them.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said a press release came from Fort Bliss, instead of Fort Hood. We apologize for the error.