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Overnight Defense: Trump extends deployment of National Guard troops to aid with coronavirus response | Pentagon considers reducing quarantine to 10 days | Lawmakers push for removal of Nazi headstones from VA cemeteries

Overnight Defense: Trump extends deployment of National Guard troops to aid with coronavirus response | Pentagon considers reducing quarantine to 10 days | Lawmakers push for removal of Nazi headstones from VA cemeteries

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

 

THE TOPLINE: President TrumpDonald John TrumpPolice say man dangling off Trump Tower Chicago demanding to speak with Trump Fauci says he was 'absolutely not' surprised Trump got coronavirus after Rose Garden event Biden: Trump 'continues to lie to us' about coronavirus MORE on Thursday announced that he would extend the deployment of National Guard troops through mid-August to assist states in responding to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

“The men and women of the National Guard have been doing a great job fighting the CoronaVirus,” Trump tweeted. “This week, I will extend their Title 32 orders through mid-August, so they can continue to help States succeed in their response and recovery efforts.”

Why this matters: Politico previously reported that the Trump administration was considering cutting off the deployments on June 24, which would have prevented guardsmen from reaching the 90 days of duty credit needed to qualify for early retirement and education benefits.

Deployed in late March, most will hit 89 days of duty credit on June 24.

Lawmakers pushed for extension: The Trump administration has faced calls from Congress and governors to extend the deployments past the June date.

“Cutting off your Department’s support to our states on June 24th would undermine our whole-of-nation response and shift the full burden to states whose budgets are already under great strain,” a group of 70 House lawmakers wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper last week. “We therefore ask that you consult with our governors to continue National Guard deployments for the duration of this crisis."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) sent a letter to Trump dated Wednesday asking him to extend the use of the Michigan National Guard to combat the coronavirus until July 31.

The Pentagon’s response: Esper has also said he advised extending deployments for guardsmen on "a valid mission assignment" that has been approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

"If it's a valid mission assignment, we should certainly extend it, and we should extend that mission assignment until the mission is accomplished," Esper said at a virtual town hall hours before Trump's tweet.

The background: The Trump administration in March agreed to pay the cost of National Guard deployments to states grappling with the pandemic. The original order was due to expire at the end of May, and Trump has already extended it once.

More than 46,000 guardsmen have been activated in every state, three territories, and Washington, D.C., in order to confront the pandemic in what the National Guard has described as its largest response to a domestic crisis since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. National Guard units have been key in states’ efforts to respond to COVID-19, helping to clean nursing homes, set up field hospitals and conduct contact tracing.

Still playing a role: Trump’s decision to extend the deployments comes as states across the country execute plans to gradually reopen their economies amid the pandemic by lifting stay-at-home orders meant to curb the spread of the virus.

Guardsmen are likely to continue to play an important role in the response to the virus as states work to ramp up testing and contact tracing in order to contain future outbreaks.

 

In other coronavirus news…

PENTAGON CONSIDERS CUTTING CORONAVIRUS QUARANTINE TO 10 DAYS: The Pentagon is considering shortening the amount of time troops potentially exposed to the coronavirus must spend in quarantine, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday.

Speaking at a virtual town hall, Esper said Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, recently recommended the Pentagon cut its quarantine time from 14 days to 10 days.

“What we’re looking at now is how can we adjust our policies and practices, because one of the things we’ve learned over the past few months is that we have a generally younger, healthier, fitter force that is able to withstand the coronavirus,” Esper said, citing just one active-duty death from the virus out of thousands of cases.

Weighing the risks: In addition to the active-duty sailor who died from the virus, a National Guardsman and a reservist have also died.

Citing Fauci and Birx, Esper added “the risk level is not that much higher between” a 10-day quarantine and a 14-day quarantine “for our population.”

Esper was responding to a question from a military spouse – who said her husband has been quarantined twice and tested negative for the virus three times while on a deployment in Afghanistan – about whether the military’s current quarantine policy is “sustainable.”

Finding a balance: The reexamination of quarantine length marks the latest example of how the Pentagon is seeking to balance maintaining its missions with keeping troops healthy as it prepares to live with the coronavirus at least until a vaccine is developed.

The Pentagon this week also laid out guidance on how, depending on local conditions, bases can begin returning to normal operations and travel restrictions can be lifted.

On shortening the quarantine length, Esper also cited increased capacity for diagnostic testing.

And top general says military to test troops for antibodies: The U.S. military is planning to test troops for coronavirus antibodies, the nation’s top general said Thursday.

Speaking alongside Esper, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said the testing would start with service members in the most critical missions, such as nuclear forces.

“We’re doing some antibody testing right now, and we’re expanding that,” Milley said. “We’ll be doing antibody testing for critical tier one units, such as those who go into subs or the nuclear triad or some of our quick-reaction forces. So the short answer is, yes, for the antibody testing.”

Antibody tests, also known as serologic tests, are meant to determine whether someone has had the coronavirus in the past by checking blood for proteins that develop after fighting the virus.

 

VA SECRETARY STOPS SHORT OF AGREEING TO REMOVE NAZI HEADSTONES: Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie on Thursday stopped short of committing to remove headstones in VA cemeteries engraved with swastikas and tributes to Adolf Hitler, citing the need for historical preservation.

"I have asked my people to look at various ways to address this. I happen to think that making sure that when people visit our cemeteries they are educated and informed of the horror is an incredibly important thing to do," Wilkie said at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Monday.

"The last thing we need to do is not remind Americans of the horrors of anti-Semitism and the horrors of the Nazi cult," he added.

Context: In question are three gravestones for the remains of unclaimed German prisoners of war buried at VA cemeteries that feature Nazi insignia.

Two of the graves, located at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas, include an iron cross and swastika on the headstone and an engraving referencing Adolf Hitler that reads, “He died far from his home for the Führer, people and fatherland.” 
 
A third grave, in Salt Lake City's Fort Douglas Post Cemetery, features a swastika and a Knight’s Cross with oak leaves. 
 
Both were Army cemeteries before coming under the stewardship of the VA.

Lawmakers want them gone: Lawmakers, including the top Democrats and Republicans on both the House Appropriations Committee and its Veterans Affairs subcommittee, sent a letter earlier in the week supporting the headstones' removal and replacement.

"Allowing these gravestones with symbols and messages of hatred, racism, intolerance, and genocide is especially offensive to all the veterans who risked, and often lost, their lives defending this country and our way of life," the letter said.

During the hearing: Subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) pressed Wilkie on the issue.

"I would argue that swastikas, as well as the inscriptions that these gravestones feature honoring Hitler, absolutely have an adverse impact in honoring those who served," she said. "We do not erase history by replacing these headstones for modern times with more appropriate inscriptions."

Wilkie, though opening his remarks on the issue by expressing his passion for fighting anti-Semitism, did not agree to Wasserman Schultz's request to kick of a consultation process under the historic preservation law that could lead to the headstones' removal.

“I want to make sure that VA is doing the best that we can to educate and remind people why those veterans in that cemetery fought against that horror from 1941 to 1945," he said. 

He did, however, agree that there was promise in Wasserman Schultz's suggestion to replace the headstones but display them with historical context in the cemeteries.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments will host a webcast on “Artificial Intelligence (AI), Defense, and Intelligence,” featuring Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, director of the Defense Department's Joint Artificial Intelligence Center at 9:30 a.m. https://www.csis.org/events/online-event-ai-defense-and-intelligence-conversation-jaic-director-lt-gen-john-nt-jack?utm_source=Daily%20on%20Defense%20052820-1_05/28/2020&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=WEX_Daily%20on%20Defense&rid=78393

 

ICYMI

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