Some Military Travel Restrictions Now Global with New CDC Guidance

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U.S. Soldiers wait to board a Korean Air Boeing 777 aircraft at Osan Air Base.
U.S. Soldiers assigned to various units under the 25th Infantry Division wait to board a Korean Air Boeing 777 aircraft at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea May 4, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Ashley Tyler)

On the heels of a Pentagon announcement that official travel for military families and Defense Department civilians is prohibited to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has designated as "Level 2 locations," signifying elevated coronavirus risk, the CDC has placed the entire globe under a Level 2 alert.

The latest travel restrictions, which will be in place for 30 days starting Friday, restrict all forms of travel for military personnel, families and civilians through "Level 3" regions, where risk of contracting the virus is high. Overnight, the list of Level 3 countries grew to include all of Europe, where thousands of U.S. troops are located, some after the abrupt conclusion of major military training exercises. Also on the list are China, Iran and South Korea.

For travel to and from Level 3 countries, DoD guidance gives service secretaries and commanders the authority to issue waivers to ensure mission readiness and address specific needs. Without a waiver, permanent change-of-station moves, temporary duty and leave are all off-limits in these regions.

In a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon Thursday, defense secretary Mark Esper said he planned to present more detail within the next 24 hours on how the travel stoppage worked in detail and how service members could be prepared.

"It starts getting global, 'if this, if that ... and that's why I wanted to make sure that I gave commanders waiver authority to make those localized decisions," he said. "So ... the questions, the way I'm supposed to move from Vincenza to Verona, or Vincenza to Naples, we're giving commanders authority to do that."

For PCS moves within the United States, he added, the Defense Department would be evaluating policy within the coming days.

We want to make sure again, we're taking prudent measures," he said.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who briefed alongside Esper, said that the PCS pause was an effort to be cautious in light of the pandemic threat.

"We think that rather than moving back and forth, that you're better off protecting in place," he said. "PCS, emergency leave, or any other kind of any movement whatsoever -- if you're going to school, professional development school, all that is frozen. Unless there's a reason to do otherwise, a specific reason on a specific case-by-case basis."

The global Level 2 alert applies to concurrent official travel, or travel alongside a service member, for families of troops and civilian personnel. For troops still on travel orders, DoD guidance states that military and contracted aircraft will be used for required travel in place of commercial accommodations, and elevated precautions will be taken, including questionnaires and temperature screenings at embarkation points.

Related: Defense Department Orders 60-Day Troop Travel Ban for Virus-Afflicted Countries

Pentagon officials have not responded to queries regarding how many PCS moves are likely to be affected by the new measures, what guidelines apply to travel within Level 3 locations and how the military is addressing cases in which travel and station-change moves are already underway.

Memos released by the Defense Department make clear that exceptions to the travel restrictions will be rare, and must be granted by an official at the general or flag officer level for conditions showing extreme need or mission requirements.

According to U.S. Transportation Command, those on the verge of a PCS move who may face homelessness due to the delay may qualify to have their goods packed out and placed in storage. But no benefits or assistance for those facing crisis due to the new travel restrictions have been announced.

DoD memos note that the CDC guidance regarding Level 3 countries could change as the deadly virus continues to spread.

"While directing this prudent action, I continue to delegate all necessary authority to commanders to make further decisions based on their assessments to protect their people and ensure mission readiness," Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement. "While we deal with this fluid and evolving situation, I remain confident in our ability to protect our service members, civilians and families."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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