The Joint Staff's director of manpower and personnel discussed the personnel aspects of the fight against COVID-19 during a freewheeling exchange with Pentagon reporters.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Lenny J. Richoux said his section is working 24-7 to ensure that the priorities laid out by Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley are met.
Those priorities are to protect service members, Defense Department civilians and their families; to ensure the viability of the force; and to support the whole-of-government effort against the COVID-19 pandemic.
A game-changer for the military was Esper's 60-day "stop movement" memo. The order, effective through May 11, covers all service members, DOD civilians and their families. Earlier, Esper had halted international travel. Now, all movement is frozen, including foreign travel, permanent changes of station, temporary duty and personal leave. It also covers deployments, redeployments and global force management activities, the general said.
"Exceptions to the stop-move order will be made on a case-by-case basis," he said. "So in general, those exceptions are for operational necessity."
Esper ordered the measures to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. "It is a freeze, and so combatant commanders and services understand that what they have right now is how they are going to have to operate for the near term," Richoux said.
Operational necessity overrides this, the general said, but for now everyone is staying where they are. "We're all confident that the best way to go is to 'stop move'," he added.
Deployed service members will stay deployed. If they were due to deploy, they will stay at their bases.
"If you are in U.S. Forces Korea and you were scheduled to rotate home in the course of a normal force rotation, you're going to be extended for a period while this pandemic gets under control," Richoux said.
Summer is the traditional season for changing assignments, military schools, training, command changes and more. "All the services are making preparations for the summer PCS cycle, and are working to determine the overall impact to current and future readiness, and will continually re-examine potential mitigation options," the general said.
The office is also studying recruiting in a time of pandemic. "The services are leaning forward and being proactive when it comes to the health, welfare and safety of our nation's newest recruits at service training commands and bases," Richoux said. Medics follow the protocols of isolating and treating each affected individual.
A virtual recruiting environment is now in effect in an effort to protect recruiters. The services are still accessing recruits, but it is still too early to assess the effect the pandemic will have on service end strengths, he said. "So we have an eye on how ... recruitment could impact total end strength of the military as we continue to assess the pandemic and respond to it," Richoux said.
All DOD bases, posts and installations are at least at Force Health Protection Condition Charlie, but the services have to operate to support the population, Richoux said. The services set their parameters and provide feedback to Richoux's office.
The coronavirus is affecting military installations differently, the general told reporters. Where it is possible to provide services in person, they are doing so in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's social distancing guidelines. At other bases, the virus is in a different stage and services are delivered virtually.
"Commanders have the authority they need to make necessary decisions to protect their forces," he said. Mission essential services — commissaries, exchanges, gas stations — remain open.
"DOD leadership is closely monitoring the effect of COVID-19 on services for the community, to include DOD clinics, schools and childcare centers," he said.
Richoux said questions have arisen about maintaining standards during stay-at-home orders. "All services have promulgated various guidance as it pertains to grooming and physical fitness standards in light of barber shops, salons and gyms being closed due to social distancing concerns," he said.
In general, he said, the services have instructed soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to maintain their physical fitness. There will come a day when the gyms and barbershops will reopen, he added, and service members should maintain their appearance and their physical fitness to the best of their ability while maintaining social distancing.
On the medical front, registered nurses are standing by to provide medical guidance over the phone or via secure messaging. Service members can also use the same means to consult with a primary care physician. The system has also expanded telehealth, including the ability to renew prescriptions.
Quarantine is emotionally draining, Richoux said, and each installation has a military and family life program with counselling. The face-to-face meetings may be curtailed for the moment, he said, but DOD's military community and family policy office has begun making telehealth services available.
"In this extremely stressful environment and time of uncertainty, these remain critical services to all personnel as we continue to deal with this international pandemic," Richoux said.
Base religious programs continue virtually, with religious services online and chaplain services available by phone, email and online chat.
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