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As the deadly coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China spreads, the U.S. military is having to act quickly, especially in places like South Korea, Italy, and Japan, where thousands of U.S. troops are based.
The New York Times, citing U.S. officials, reported Monday that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has instructed combatant commanders not to make coronavirus response decisions without providing advanced notice to Pentagon leadership to ensure that their actions and messaging are consistent with that of the Trump administration and do not come as a surprise to the White House.
The Times reported that in one exchange during last week's teleconference, Gen. Robert Abrams, head of U.S. Forces Korea, told Esper that he would try to provide advanced notice of his responses to the coronavirus but noted that the current situation may require making emergency decisions before receiving approval.
The directive was reportedly delivered during a teleconference last week.
The Pentagon strongly denied the report Tuesday, calling it a "dishonest misrepresentation of the DOD's response effort."
"The Secretary of Defense has given our Global Combatant Commanders the clear and unequivocal authority to take any and all actions necessary to ensure the health and safety of U.S. service members, civilian DOD personnel, families and dependents," Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in an emailed statement.
"During this video teleconference which I attended, he explicitly did not direct them to 'clear' their force health decisions in advance — that is a dangerous and inaccurate mischaracterization," he added.
During a Pentagon press briefing Monday, Esper discussed briefly his recent talks with military leaders on the virus and necessary responses.
"At the end of last week," the defense secretary said Monday, "I did a deep dive with DOD civilian and military leadership, including all the service secretaries, the COCOM commanders, to ensure the entire department is equipped for all scenarios."
"Commanders of individually affected geographic commands have all the authority they need and will provide specific guidance to their troops as the situation continues to evolve," Esper said, adding that his number one priority "remains to protect our forces and their families."
The purpose of Esper's reported directive is, one defense official told The Times, to ensure that the U.S. government, to include the military, is communicating with one voice. The Pentagon rejected the report but did say that "the Department of Defense is working in lockstep with our interagency partners and to ensure a swift, effective, and transparent approach to addressing this virus."
The first member of the U.S. military to contract the coronavirus did so while serving on the Korean peninsula. South Korea, home to roughly 28,000 US troops, has been severely affected by the coronavirus, which has infected more than 4,000 people.
In response to recent developments, the U.S. military has had to take drastic measures to combat the coronavirus and protect U.S. military personnel in South Korea.
USFK, for instance, has prohibited service members from attending non-essential off-base activities and social events, such as dining out or going to the movies. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has temporarily banned all non-essential travel to South Korea, and one planned joint military exercise with South Korea has been postponed.
"Right now," Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Monday, "the overall broad impact to the uniformed US military is very, very minimal. It's not to say it's zero, but it's very, very minimal."
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