How the US military's coronavirus response may screw over the reserves

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U.S. Soldiers listen during a rifle marksmanship class prior to the inaugural Army Reserve Small Arms Championship at Camp Robinson, Ark., Sept. 22, 2014

U.S. Soldiers listen during a rifle marksmanship class prior to the inaugural Army Reserve Small Arms Championship at Camp Robinson, Ark., Sept. 22, 2014

Editor's Note: This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

The endless pursuit of lethality combined with perverse incentives for commanders means the U.S. military’s reserve component risks being left in the lurch by the government’s broad response to COVID-19.

On its face, the Defense Department appears to have gone all in on preventing the spread of the virus, initially issuing a flexible guidance that included travel restrictions for service members to Level 3 locations and a five-step action plan to prevent transmission. On Friday, after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, the DoD issued new travel restrictions banning domestic travel for DoD military and civilian personnel and their families save for cases where travel is considered “mission-essential.”

However, decision-making for the RC has been delayed, inconsistent, and largely absent. Some units have performed admirably, utilizing proactive decision-making and outside-the-box thinking to find ways to mitigate health risk while still accomplishing parts of their mission. Unfortunately, others have left their soldiers in the dark with subpar communication, a rigid adherence to pre-planned events, and over-application of “mission essential” tasks.

On a broad level, there has been little consistency across the services, let alone within them, regarding how to protect service members at this time. Guidance is changing fast, largely due to how commanders chose to interpret guidance; often, individual bases and units are setting the standard for their communities with regards to coronavirus prevention and containment. Lack of clear leadership signals from the Secretary of Defense or National Guard Bureau on how to support the RC creates confusion over what to prioritize and perverts decision-making.

This is partially because readiness requirements often clash with public health directives to stay home, self-isolate, and telework. While the services themselves have signaled good behavior, releasing information on how to self-monitor and stop the spread of the disease, commanders at the battalion level seem not to have gotten the message. For example: Besides practicing public health hygiene, the best approach for stemming the spread of COVID-19 is social distancing AKA “cancel everything.” But while companies from Sephora to the NBA are suspending services and seasons, and the military services themselves have cancelled basic training graduations and other large-scale military exercises, some reserve training exercises have yet to be cancelled.

The RC is not the active-duty force, and many reservists are facing dissonance between how their civilian jobs and reserve units are responding to the public health crisis. Continuity of operations is essential for national security, but the military’s obsessive pursuit of mission and lethality in the RC at this time is actively putting people at risk. There has been no force-wide policy from the National Guard Bureau regarding drill schedules, though some states and commanders are taking measures. Not issuing a blanket cancellation of drill or training exercises requires reservists travel across modes of transportation, sometimes traveling across state lines, sleep in barracks, and be in close quarters.

Much of the reserve component is made up of personnel who fill key roles during civil emergencies. The National Guard has been called to support COVID-19 responses in Florida, New York, Rhode Island, and Iowa. As response to the pandemic continues, it is worth considering whether reservists who are firefighters, police officers, or other civil servants might be better serving their nation and community by continuing to serve in their civilian capacity rather than attending drill weekends or training exercises.

Lawmakers are already considering the challenges ahead for the RC. Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia and Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois have both asked Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to review support to National Guard and reserves, and Luria requested information on precautions being taken and impact of policies in place. The Navy announced cessation of drills this weekend, and some units are allowing for more flexible drill schedules to accommodate the fluidity of the situation.

While it has only been days since the DoD released its guidance on domestic travel restrictions, RC soldiers are largely still left unclear and confused as to how this exactly applies to them and their service obligations. Misplaced incentives have seen commanders focused not on mitigating health risk but on continuing to check the boxes necessary as if everything was proceeding normally. Reserve commanders need to determine whether they are better serving the country by helping flattening the curve or by ensuring that every soldier in their unit travels in from across the country to make sure their SGLI is up to date. 

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in early March, "My number one priority remains to protect our forces and their families; second is to safeguard our mission capabilities and third [is] to support the interagency whole-of-government's approach.” This may be the case for the active-duty military, but, as usual, the RC has fallen between the cracks.