The Pentagon’s command triad held a second live streamed town hall meeting to address some of those concerns on Thursday, via questions gathered online.
“We see some light at the end of the tunnel, we are still not out of the woods,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said.
Here are some topics from questions submitted by troops, family members and DoD employees.
1. Face coverings
As of the Pentagon’s most recent policy guidance, it’s mandatory to wear something over your nose and mouth if you can’t maintain six feet of distance between other people.
“Where social distancing is not possible, where you cannot get outside of six feet, then you should wear a face covering ― if you’re off a DoD installation,” Esper said. “If you’re on a DoD installation or base or facility, it is required."
But that covering does not have to be a surgical or respirator mask. Homemade cloth masks or bandannas are also acceptable, and the services have posted tutorials on how to transform a uniform undershirt into a mask.
“Masks should be reserved for medical personnel, for personnel in contact with infected persons or possibly infected persons,” Esper said, which is why DoD won’t be issuing them to troops and families.
As questions about long-term readiness swirl, the prospect of stop-loss ― when the military halts a service member’s discharge in order to maintain manning levels ― have abound.
Those decisions would likely be made on a service level, as each of the services are fighting different levels of infection and feeling different affects from slowing down their recruiting and basic training operations.
“I doubt it. I think it’s very unlikely,” Esper said, asked whether it was on the table. “It would be a measure of last resort, and would be very surgically focused.”
3. PCS season
Officials are having a meeting about the looming annual permanent change-of-station surge, in which thousands of service members change duty stations throughout the summer.
“What we’re trying to figure out now are, what are the key dates by which we have to consider opening up the system again for PCS moves?” Esper said.
The department is under a 60-day travel ban that lifts May 12, but with projects that coronavirus will continue circulating through the summer, extra care is necessary.
Service members with school-age children will probably be prioritized, Esper said, so that they can get into their new homes in time for the new school year, as has been tradition.
The logistics of scheduling packers and movers for household goods will also be an issue, as will be the infection rate on either end of a move.
“If there are some lingering affects of the virus, what is the medical capability on the other end?" Esper said.
And if the infection rates don’t drop enough to make moves safe, PCS season might have to be pushed out.
“We’re hopeful that we’re going to open up here shortly,” Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, but a delay is still on the table. “I don’t want to put a date on it and get false expectations raised out there, but I think we’re probably looking at opening it up sometime this summer from a matter of policy.”
If everything shuts down now, it creates a huge readiness gap. But what happens if COVID-19 continues to spread?
The travel ban has also complicated deployment and training cycles, as some units have been extended downrange while others have canceled movements altogether.
Most of the the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team has been in Kuwait since January, as part of a Global Response Force deployment after attacks by Iranian-backed militias on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.
One maneuver battalion has redeployed, Milley said, but the rest are still there.
“In part because of the COVID situation, but in part because the situation with the Shia militia groups and Iran, etc., is not 100 percent settled down,” he said.
There have been some exceptions for deployments, temporary duty and other travel, because commanders have the ability to make them in cases of hardship.
“We have to keep in mind that each case is going to be different,” Senior Enlisted Adviser to the Chairman Ramon Colon-Lopez, an airman, said. “Every decision that is going to be made to approve those waivers has got to be safety driven to ensure we keep our people safe.”
5. Canceled leave
Another effect of the travel ban has been canceled vacations and leave, and for many service members, that means not getting to use up vacation days that they cannot carry over into next year.
Increasing the number of carry-over days is also under discussion, Colon-Lopez said.
“We want to make sure that our service members do not lose that entitlement,” he said.