Lawmakers are furious over the Pentagon’s lackluster, disjointed COVID-19 response

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Ten Senate Democrats have blasted Defense Secretary Mark Esper, whom they claim has mishandled the U.S. military’s response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

In an April 27 letter to Esper, the senators argue the defense secretary has not issued clear department-wide guidance on the coronavirus response and has caused confusion at the service and unit level. That leadership vacuum, they claim, was what allowed the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt to dock in Vietnam despite the risk of the crew getting sick.

The lawmakers also sharply criticized Esper for continuing to deploy U.S. troops to the southwestern border during the coronavirus pandemic and for preventing the U.S. military for saying publicly how many service members at specific installations have tested positive for COVID-19.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has the very first signature at the bottom of the letter. Warren has been a longtime critic of Esper. During his July 16 confirmation hearing, she accused Esper of having a conflict of interest because of his previous employment with Raytheon.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman pushed back at the senators’ criticism by arguing their letter “does not even remotely accurately reflect our record of action against the coronavirus and the great lengths we have gone to protect our people.”

“It is unfortunate that this letter has cherry-picked false and repeatedly debunked assertions that do not reflect reality,” Hoffman said in a statement. “We are proud of the work we have done leading the fight against COVID-19 — and the American people and members of Congress should be proud as well.”

In the letter, the 10 senators claim that Esper’s oft-stated refusal to issue blanket guidance to the military services on issues such as recruiting and haircuts has caused local commanders to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.

“Although local commanders know their units and operating environments better than anyone in the Pentagon, they are not public health experts,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. “And they are now left to make decisions they should never have to make.”

The senators noted how the Army made all of its recruiting efforts virtual on March 20, while Marine recruiters were reportedly still expected to conduct interviews in person and drive poolees to Military Entrance Processing Stations.

Moreover, the Navy cancelled its annual spring fitness test on March 18, while the Marine Corps did not follow suit until more than a month later, according to the letter.

And while the Navy has relaxed grooming standards, the Marine Corps still requires Marines to get haircuts, the senators wrote. This issue was made even murkier when Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly contradicted Esper at an April 14 Pentagon news briefing on whether the Marine Corps should suspend haircut requirements.

“This level of miscommunication on even relatively simple matters indicates that dysfunctional decision-making starts at the top of the Department,” the 10 senators wrote.

The lack of guidance from the Pentagon has led to commanders responding to the coronavirus with varying levels of success, the senators argue. For example: U.S. Forces Korea reacted quickly and effectively to contain the outbreak at the beginning.

On the other end of the spectrum, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command allowed the Theodore Roosevelt to go ahead with a March 5 port call in Vietnam despite the danger to the crew, according to the letter.

“United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) had ‘both the time and the information’ to cancel the visit before it happened: the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared a global public health emergency at the end of January, and the Navy responded to the potential danger of port calls on February 28, 2020 when then Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly announced the U.S. Pacific Fleet had ordered all ships in the Seventh Fleet’s area of operations to wait at least 14 days in between port calls,” the senators wrote.

A senior defense official claimed the lawmakers contradict themselves in the letter by arguing it was Esper’s fault that the Theodore Roosevelt’s crew became sick with the coronavirus while acknowledging that the Navy is still trying to determine if a port call in Vietnam caused the outbreak aboard the ship.

The senators also took issue with Esper deploying another 540 troops to the U.S./Mexico border, noting the head of U.S. Army North told the service members they were protecting the country from immigrants who were sick with the coronavirus.

“Given the fact that as of the same day, there were already more than 213,144 confirmed cases of coronavirus already inside the United States, it strains elementary logic to see how this deployment serves your own stated goal of protecting the troops,” the senators wrote.

Finally, the Democratic lawmakers accused Esper of sowing “fear within both military and civilian communities” by preventing the Defense Department from publicly releasing where troops and civilians who have tested positive for the coronavirus are assigned.

“To appropriately address this crisis, the civilian community and military must work together, which cannot happen without clear information from military officials,” the senators wrote.

Again, the senior defense official claimed the lawmakers have mischaracterized the U.S. military’s actions, noting the Defense Department has shared more data about coronavirus cases than any other organization in the world. 

“For those claiming that DoD is not being open about COVID data – that dog just won’t hunt,” the official said. Meanwhile, both New York and New Jersey, two states at the epicenter of the pandemic, provide a breakdown of coronavirus cases by county. 

At an April 10 Pentagon news briefing, the Pentagon’s top health official said the U.S. military does not feel it would be “helpful” to say where service members who have tested positive for the coronavirus are assigned.

The reason why the Pentagon does not want to get too specific about where U.S. service members have been diagnosed with the coronavirus are based: Operational security, said Thomas McCaffery, assistant defense secretary for health affairs.

“I know from the operational standpoint and the national security standpoint, there is a discomfort for us to identify down to a particular base, to a particular aircraft or naval vessel what the cases are because it does then get into what is the impact on readiness of that particular mission or location, which we don’t think is helpful airing in a public way – while we recognize we still have adversaries in the world,” McCaffrey told reporters.