Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley confirmed Wednesday that Army officials are considering postponing or curtailing exercises in South Korea amid concerns over the spreading coronavirus.
During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Pentagon budget, Milley said he expects Army Gen. Robert Abrams and Chairman of the Republic of Korea Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hanki Park to make recommendations on whether to hold the training as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in South Korea.
The country has the largest number of cases outside China — 1,300 as of Wednesday.
“So we're taking a hard look at the joint exercises with the Republic Korea Army,” Milley said.
The chairman’s statements came on the heels of an announcement Monday from U.S. Forces Korea calling a media report announcing the postponement of combined training “inaccurate.”
“When any USFK decisions or announcements are made — regardless of the topic or scenario — they will be made through official USFK channels, platforms or agencies, and not through rumors or speculation,” noted the statement, released on the USFK web and Facebook pages.
U.S. installations in the Republic of Korea are now screening individuals entering installations, taking temperatures and conducting medical surveys. The enhanced medical protections led to hours-long backups this week at the gates of Camps Humphreys, Casey and Hovey, as well as Yongsan, according to U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys Commander Col. Michael Tremblay.
On Wednesday, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command issued travel restrictions to the Republic of Korea, banning all nonessential travel for military, civilian and contract personnel to the country.
Esper told Congress Wednesday that a Pentagon team meets daily to discuss plans for dealing with the virus, to include executing a U.S. Northern Command campaign plan and receiving updates from all combatant commanders.
In Italy, where more than 35,000 U.S. personnel and family members reside, cases of coronavirus continue to mount. Travel restrictions have been instituted for U.S. personnel as well as dependents to areas that have been placed off limits by the Italian government, including Lombardy and Veneto.
The commissary and exchange at Vicenza also began limiting purchases of cleaning supplies and disinfectants to ensure that all patrons could stock up, according to the garrison’s Facebook page.
The U.S. State Department this week clarified its travel advisory for Italy, confirming its Level 2 advisory — Exercise Increased Caution — because of COVID-19. Italy had been at Level 1 for a standing risk of terrorist attacks; the State Department added a note of caution to be aware of the increasing cases of coronavirus in the country.
Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander, told Congress Tuesday he is watching the situation in Europe, saying there may be a “50-50” chance that restrictions in Italy will be extended and U.S. installations in Germany could face similar measures should the number of cases rise.
Milley and Esper said the Pentagon is taking “all appropriate measures” to help contain the spread of the novel virus and protect personnel.
“My first priority is protection of our people, both service members and families, and then make sure we protect our ability to accomplish our mission,” Esper said.
“Coronavirus is a very serious thing. We, the U.S. military, and we, the Department of Defense, are taking all kinds of appropriate precautions. We’ve enacted one of our global pandemic plans to work this,” Milley said.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.