Pentagon gets heat over protecting service members from coronavirus

Pentagon gets heat over protecting service members from coronavirus
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The Pentagon is facing growing scrutiny over whether it is doing enough to protect service members from the coronavirus.

The questions were amplified this week as a Navy captain dramatically warned about an outbreak on his aircraft carrier — and the Navy subsequently fired him in equally dramatic fashion.

After the captain's firing, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Trump pushed to restore full National Guard funding | Watchdog faults Pompeo on civilian risk of Saudi arms sales Lawmakers push Trump to restore full funding for National Guards responding to pandemic Overnight Defense: Embattled Pentagon policy nominee withdraws, gets appointment to deputy policy job | Marines, sailor killed in California training accident identified | Governors call for extension of funding for Guard's coronavirus response MORE (D-Wash.) and three subcommittee chairmen said they were “concerned about the lack of guidance from Department of Defense leadership” and that Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Esper confirms plans to drop below 5,000 troops in Afghanistan | State Department says it's cleared of wrongdoing in emergency arms sales before investigation's release 400 'hard-core' Taliban prisoners to be released ahead of Afghan peace talks Esper says officials still don't know source of Beirut blast MORE is “forcing” commanders “to make decisions on matters outside of their expertise while under immense pressure.”

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More broadly, the number of infected service members is nearing 1,000, raising questions about whether the military is placing too much emphasis on remaining postured for a potential war at the expense of troops’ health.

Esper has defended the Pentagon’s response to the crisis, and he and other officials repeatedly have said their top priority is protecting personnel.

At the same time, Esper has stressed the military must maintain its readiness to fight a war.

“There seems to be this narrative out there that we should just shut down the entire United States military and address the problem that way,” he said at a White House briefing this week. “That's not feasible. We have a mission. Our mission is to protect the United States of America and our people, and so we live and work in cramped quarters, whether it’s an aircraft carrier, a submarine, a tank, a bomber. It’s the nature of our business.”

Esper added he’s “confident” commanders are “taking every reasonable precaution” to follow social distancing guidelines and sanitize their environments.

In a statement Saturday, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the Pentagon has been carrying out its pandemic plan for more than two months, including issuing travel restrictions, implementing social distancing and raising force health protection levels.
 
"This is a challenging environment where we have to balance protection of our forces with our national security missions and our efforts to help the American people, but the Department of Defense is leading in this crisis and has been ahead of the curve with our efforts since the first days," he said.

Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryBottom line Overnight Defense: US to pull 11,900 troops from Germany | Troop shuffle to cost 'several billion' dollars | Lawmakers pan drawdown plan | Trump says he hasn't discussed alleged bounties with Putin Lawmakers torch Trump plan to pull 11,900 troops from Germany MORE (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, suggested this week he thinks the Pentagon could have been doing more earlier but added that the slow reaction is a nationwide issue.

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“I think we, the whole society, including the military, has been playing catch-up on COVID-19 because we have never seen anything like this before,” he said on a conference call with reporters in response to a question from The Hill. “So I don't think you could say that any of us have done enough.”

“You can always, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, [say] ‘Well, you should have made that decision two weeks ago,’ but I don't know. This thing's moving so fast and is so challenging. I want to be a little bit careful before I'm too critical,” he added.

Finding a balance between maintaining readiness and protecting service members’ health, he said, is “tough.”

“We don't want to give adversaries an opening, and at the same time ... if we don't take care of our people, then they will not be able to defend the country,” he said. “So you have to do both.”

As of Friday, the Pentagon said 978 service members had tested positive for the virus; 34 have been hospitalized, and one, a New Jersey Guardsman, has died. The Navy had the most cases of any service at 322.

In addition to the outbreak on an aircraft carrier, there have also been reports of dozens infected at the Marine Corps’ Parris Island boot camp, which stopped receiving new recruits this week to prevent the virus’s spread.

The Pentagon has made changes to address the crisis, including a global 60-day stop-movement order Esper issued in late March. But critics say Esper has acted too slowly and punted too many decisions.

“I think the Pentagon didn't take this seriously as fast as they should have,” Rep. Jason CrowJason CrowTrump-Afghan deal passes key deadline, but peace elusive Cook shifts 20 House districts toward Democrats Congressional inconsistency continues regarding war powers MORE (D-Colo.) said in a phone interview with The Hill, referencing Esper’s answer to him at Feb. 26 House Armed Services Committee hearing that the Pentagon had not begun internal discussion on whether it needed more resources and funding for the coronavirus.

“You learn in military 101 training and leadership training that the first step of any kind of mission planning is you have to assess the threat,” said Crow, an Army Ranger veteran. “And as of Feb. 26, the fact that the Pentagon was not yet having those discussions tells me that they were getting at this problem too late. So here we are now in a crisis.”

While there is a balance between protecting service members’ health and continuing missions such as counterterrorism and preparing for so-called great-power competition with Russia and China, Crow said, he is “not seeing” leadership strike that balance.

“I just don't have confidence, sitting here right now today, that there is enough of a will at the top and that they're taking this seriously in the right way to conduct the global planning that's necessary to both address those threats but protect the force from this pandemic and do both of those at the same time,” he said.

Hoffman on Saturday dismissed the discussion at the February hearing as being about a "bureaucratic accounting process," adding that it "would be impossible for anyone informed of the vast effort that the department has put forth over the last 8 weeks to confront COVID to claim with a straight face that we are not taking this seriously."

The House and Senate Armed Services committees were separately briefed by telephone this week on the Pentagon’s response to the virus. Officials on the calls included Thomas McCaffery, assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs; Ellen Lord, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and sustainment; and Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, Joint Staff surgeon.

After the Senate panel’s briefing, Chairman Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeLincoln Project expands GOP target list, winning Trump ire Trump's contempt for advice and consent Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  MORE (R-Okla.) said military service leaders “need to set clear unit-level policies” to prevent the spread of the virus and “support unit leaders with the tools and resources needed to respond to and mitigate outbreaks as they occur.”

“While recognizing the need to continue critical military missions, the health and safety of our troops and their families must also be the top priority right now,” he said, adding that the Pentagon “shares that priority.”

He pointed to the situation on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier as exemplifying the “numerous and unique challenges” the military is facing with the virus.

The Navy’s handling of the outbreak on the Roosevelt, where more than 137 sailors tested positive for the virus as of Friday, ignited a firestorm this week.

The commander of the ship, Capt. Brett Crozier, wrote a letter to Navy leaders warning that sailors would die if he did not get permission to evacuate all but 10 percent of the 4,800-person crew. The San Francisco Chronicle obtained a copy of the letter and published it Tuesday.

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On Thursday, the Navy removed Crozier from command of the ship, with acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly announcing the decision in an extraordinary, hastily called news conference where he said Crozier failed to ensure the letter wasn’t leaked to the media.

Crozier’s decision to send a copy of the letter to dozens of people in the Navy “demonstrated extremely poor judgment in the middle of a crisis because what it's done is it’s created a firestorm,” Modly said.

But the firing has led lawmakers to demand answers.

“I asked in our [Department of Defense] briefing this week: How many more Navy ships have COVID-19 infected sailors? There was no answer,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) tweeted Friday. “Possible virus hot spots at sea. Many lack adequate testing.”

Blumenthal, Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenDemocrats shy from leading court fight over Trump orders Exclusive: Democrats seek to increase racial diversity of pandemic relief oversight board Overnight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors MORE (D-Md.) and 15 of their Democratic Senate colleagues asked the Pentagon’s inspector general Friday to open an investigation into Crozier’s firing and the outbreak on the Roosevelt, as did Democratic Reps. Ted LieuTed W. LieuCalifornia Dems back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup GOP official says Elizabeth Warren 'endorses voter fraud' after joke about Bailey voting for Biden Milley confirms soldiers deployed to DC amid unrest were given bayonets MORE (Calif.) and Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoHispanic Caucus asks for Department of Labor meeting on COVID in meatpacking plants The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden's latest plan on racial inequality Overnight Energy: Official says protesters not cleared from Lafayette Square for Trump | Trump administration blasts banks refusing to fund Arctic drilling | 2019 coal production hit lowest level since 1978 MORE (Ariz.).

Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Overnight Defense: Embattled Pentagon policy nominee withdraws, gets appointment to deputy policy job | Marines, sailor killed in California training accident identified | Governors call for extension of funding for Guard's coronavirus response Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled MORE (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the incident on the Roosevelt raises “critical questions” about the Navy’s response to the virus.

“Should the Navy be doing more?  What adjustments are they making?” Reed said in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic is urgent and evolving and it is incumbent upon the civilian and uniformed leadership to provide clear guidance not just to the committee, but to our forces and the American taxpayers.”

Updated 4:51 p.m.