BY DAVID VERGUN

Protecting the Defense Department’s people, maintaining military readiness and supporting the whole-of-government interagency response are DOD’s top three priorities amid the coronavirus pandemic, Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper said.
Esper, joined by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army Gen. Mark A. Milley and Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramón ”CZ” Colón-López, conducted a virtual town hall meeting today to answer questions about DOD’s coronavirus response.

”I’ve made protecting our people our top priority,” Esper said, referring to service members, DOD’s civilian employees and contractors, and their families.

Meanwhile, the secretary said, maintaining mission readiness is important so DOD can be ready to fight and win if called upon to do so.

DOD is ”all in” on supporting the interagency effort to protect the American people, Esper said, noting that the department has deployed thousands of National Guardsmen in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and four territories.

The Army is deploying field hospitals to major U.S. cities, and the Navy has deployed the hospital ship USNS Mercy to Los Angeles, the secretary said, adding that the hospital ship USNS Comfort soon will deploy to New York City.

World-class researchers at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and other locations are working with researchers elsewhere to come up with vaccines, Esper said, while other DOD efforts include opening up strategic stockpiles of masks, ventilators and other equipment to help the American people.

Brian Kearney, Research Microbiologist, harvests samples of coronavirus in a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. This virus stock will be used to develop models of infection for coronavirus, as well as diagnostic tests, vaccines and therapeutics. USAMRIID, established in 1969, is the Department of Defense’s lead laboratory for medical biodefense research.

Testing kits and personal protective equipment are available for DOD medical workers, he said, but he acknowledged that there will be shortages, just as in the civilian sector until the private sector can ramp up production.

Esper said the department is in close coordination with allies and partners and has even reached out to Iran to offer assistance in battling COVID-19.

The secretary also stressed preventive measures people should be taking to slow the spread of the virus, such as social distancing, wiping down surfaces that are touched and hand washing. The best and most trusted guidance can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, which is updated regularly, he added.

200310-N-UA321-1003 NORFOLK, Va. (Mar. 10, 2020) Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Handling 1st Class Robin Lewis practices preventative actions by cleaning a counter space in the Administrative area at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Hampton Roads, during the coronavirus outbreak. NSA Hampton Roads personnel cleaned their work areas to continue to help stop the spread of germs and illnesses like the flu and the coronavirus. (U.S. Navy photo by Katisha Draughn-Fraguada/Released)

”This is not the first challenge the United States has ever faced,” Milley said. ”This is not the first war we’ve ever been in.” As they deal with the invisible coronavirus enemy, military leaders at all levels are expected to follow DOD guidance and to look after their soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, he added.

Combatant commanders and leaders at bases and installations have been delegated with a decision-making authority on matters such as determining when service members and their families can move to new duty assignments, the chairman said.

”We will get through this through solid leadership, caring for our troops and keeping focus on the mission,” Milley said.

Colón-López said the mission is clearly understood and that it’s ”a no-fail mission.” The U.S. military will be flexible and adaptable to deal with this challenge, he said.