SecDef to Troops: Speak Up If You See Unsafe Procedures During Outbreak

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A Florida National Guardsman with the Florida Medical Detachment prepares to retrieve a sample from a patient.
A Florida National Guardsman with the Florida Medical Detachment prepares to retrieve a sample from a patient at a COVID-19 community drive-through testing site, March 19, 2020, in Pembroke Pines, Fla. (U.S. Army/Sgt. Michael Baltz)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper is calling on rank-and-file troops to speak up if their units are doing something potentially unsafe during the novel coronavirus outbreak as the force braces for its day-to-day activities to be upended for months.

Sitting beside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley and Senior Enlisted Adviser to the Chairman Ramón Colón-López at a Pentagon town hall Tuesday, Esper urged, "If you're a young NCO or young officer and you see something that doesn't make sense, raise it privately with your chain of command and say, 'Hey, maybe we should do this differently next time.'"

As the military continues to work under Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, as well as its own, to achieve social distancing while accomplishing missions, he said it's imperative that troops communicate with commanders and vice versa.

"Help remind your leaders, help protect one another, help each other," Esper said of adhering to precautionary health guidelines. "Get through this by reminding each other about social distancing, about different ways to perform the mission."

Related: Military Hospitals Will Stop Offering 'Elective Surgeries,' Esper Says

While social distancing may be impossible inside a tank or on a submarine, "if you can avoid putting … a large number of people in small rooms, you should do it," he said. "Hold your meeting outside, and maybe meet in smaller groups."

Earlier this month, ProPublica reported that the amphibious assault ship Boxer held a meeting with scores of leaders packed into its wardroom. A sailor onboard had already tested positive for the virus; another tested positive four days later.

In an effort to limit the spread, leaders across the services are instructing commanders to avoid mass gatherings and implement social distancing whenever possible. They have also encouraged teleworking, or working from home.

Esper this week raised the Pentagon's health restriction level to HPCON-C, the second-highest level, reducing access to contractors, civilians and non-essential military personnel.

"We're going to telework as long as necessary to ensure that we're beyond the coronavirus crisis," he said Tuesday. "It's going to be weeks for sure, maybe months, and we're asking every office head, every director, every person, that chain of command, to exercise due diligence and great caution and telework as much as possible, so we can protect our people while performing our mission."

The secretary's message of increased vigilance comes as President Donald Trump has begun suggesting that U.S. citizens can return to work soon despite medical professionals' guidance to quarantine at home.

"Our people want to return to work," Trump said Tuesday via Twitter. "They will practice Social Distancing and all else, and Seniors will be watched over protectively & lovingly. We can do two things together."

Milley said the U.S. military anticipates the coronavirus' repercussions to last roughly "eight to 10 weeks, roughly three months" based on what has transpired in countries such as China and South Korea.

The inevitable result will be an impact to operational readiness, he said.

"We will have moderate to low levels of readiness impacts," Milley said. "We'll have to assess it. We are assessing if there will be an impact of readiness. But I think it'll be on the lower end."

The Defense Department has been watching how other countries have responded to the pandemic, such as Italy, where the death toll surpassed 17,000 Tuesday.

Countries being heavily impacted "could lead in some cases to social breakdowns," Milley said.

"It's very, very important that we do what the professionals are telling us to do, which is flatten that curve. Take all the appropriate measures for us in the military, but also in the nation, to do our part in order to reduce the probability and to mitigate the impact of this coronavirus globally and nationally."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Read more: The Latest on the Military's COVID-19 Response

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