The Defense Department is doing a lot to combat the spread of COVID-19 across the nation, but its primary mission — the defense of the nation and its interests — continues unabated, Deputy Defense Secretary David L. Norquist said during a news conference Thursday at the Pentagon.
"To those who wish us harm, make no mistake: even with the challenges that this disease has brought to our shores, the Department of Defense stands ready to meet any threat and defend our nation," Norquist said. "Over the last four years, we have rebuilt our military from the negative effects of sequestration. We have more people, more advanced equipment, more munitions and are better trained. If our adversaries think this is our moment of weakness, they are dangerously wrong."
Norquist said DOD support of state and local authorities in the fight against the coronavirus means that DOD people might end up with a higher rate of infection from the virus than other populations. But at the same time, he said, the youthful demographic of the U.S. military means that fewer of those who contract the virus will suffer severe consequences.
According to Defense Department statistics, of the 1,898 current coronavirus cases among active duty service members, only 64 required hospitalization.
Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said readiness across the department is where it needs to be.
"We watch the readiness of the force every day. And the readiness of the force, in aggregate, has not dropped as we've gone through this," Hyten said. "That's something that we have to watch very, very closely."
While there are "pockets" of degraded readiness across the force, such as the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt staying in port in Guam longer than it normally would, the aggregate readiness is unaffected, he said.
What may eventually affect readiness, Hyten said, is a prolonged reduction in numbers of new recruits entering basic training for military service.
"We've had to cut down the pipeline into basic training in order to make sure that the folks that go into basic training, go into basic training in a safe, secure way. Each of the services, working in a different way, have constricted the pipeline of folks coming in," Hyten said. "For a short period of time, that's not a big issue. If that continues long, then all of a sudden our numbers come down. And that will eventually impact readiness if it goes on month after month after month."
But for now, Hyten said, "our readiness is still full up."
Hyten also said the department has some 50,000 personnel involved in the fight against the coronavirus — of those, he said, about 30,000 are from the National Guard and reserves.
The general cited one team of reservists, led by Col. Hans F. Otto at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, as being emblematic of the dedication reservists and Guard members have had since being called up to duty to fight the coronavirus.
"They call themselves the 'COVID Commandos,'" Hyten said. "Just four days ago, ... their team — one doctor and six nurses — packed their bags, said goodbye to their families, [and] deployed to New York with 24 hours' notice. ... There's been thousands of stories like that since the president mobilized the reserve [March 27]."
Across the department, military doctors, nurses and enlisted medical professionals are leaving home to deploy to places across the country to aid civilian doctors and protect the nation, the general said.
"They're moving fast to help their fellow citizens in a time of crisis," he added. "They're helping to support the heroic doctors and nurses already there who are tired and have been fighting that disease for the last few weeks, and they need support. That's what they're there for. And that's just a few examples of the sacrifice that citizen airmen and citizen soldiers are making from all units in order to fight and improve the lives of Americans."
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