One democratic member of Congress is calling for the National Guard and reserves to call off drill weekends while the coronavirus spreads across the U.S., while another is calling for the same organizations to be on alert to help their local civilian health departments with emergency response.
In separate letters sent Friday to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia and Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois called on the Pentagon’s top official to turn his attention to the military’s reserve component as the federal government issues travel restrictions and advises Americans to take care to stay out of close contact with others.
“After receiving extensive briefings on the Federal Government’s response to the COVlD-19 outbreak, I am concerned that [DoD] has not yet taken proactive steps to ensure the readiness of National Guard and Reserve units to support local civilian authorities should this pandemic continue to spread,” Duckworth wrote.
To shore up that readiness, Luria in her letter suggested that the reserve component stand down on scheduled drill weekends for the time being, in order to prevent any spread of the virus.
“The Navy has already announced cessation of drills for this weekend, but I am concerned other services have not followed suit,” she wrote.
A Pentagon spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Luria requested a review of policy for gatherings of Reserve and Guard units, and some clarity on how these units are taking precautions to reduce spread of the virus as they spend weekends together training in close quarters.
At the same time, Duckworth called for Senate Armed Services Committee briefing on their readiness, facing the possibility that those units could be called on to support engineering, medical, water purification and other civilian services.
“1 am concerned that the readiness of these units has not been assessed in any systematic fashion to date and that potential preparations for them to activate have yet to be taken,” Duckworth said.
Duckworth also floated the idea of dipping into the military’s food ration inventory to feed low-income children whose access to free school breakfast and lunch could be hampered by school closures.
“1 am also deeply concerned about the potential impacts of school closures on the health and nutrition of vulnerable children,” she wrote. "With its stockpiles of rations, DoD is uniquely positioned to serve as a backstop should community alternatives to school meals falter.
An emergency relief bill proposed by congressional Democrats would provide funding for those meals and other support, but as of Friday, leaders were still in negotiations with Republicans on a deal.
Luria’s letter also addressed the permanent change-of-station and temporary duty travel freeze to and from Europe and Asia, in place until May 12. She requested answers from the Pentagon on how the suspension would affect families who were packed up and ready to fly this week, how they’re being financially supported as they wait for the ban to lift, whether military flights are screening passengers coming to the U.S. on essential travel and how much these changes will end of costing DoD.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT