Secretary Esper Updates Reporters After Parris Island Visit

May 27, 2020
Secretary Of Defense Mark T. Esper

Q:  All right, well, oh, are you -- you ready?  OK. I think probably the thing we're both wondering is that today, you know, talking to General Glynn and some of the lessons learned that they have and what they think they might carry into the future in terms of social distancing and hygiene that they've learned (inaudible).

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Yeah. Can you hear me? I'll keep this on if you can -- if you can hear me.

Q:  Yeah, I can. I think the recorder probably (inaudible).


SEC. ESPER:  So these are easy to talk in.

Q:  Yeah, if you could just -- yeah. (Inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  So, this is the virtue of getting out of the building:  A, you get to get out of the building; but B, you learn stuff.

And so, the biggest thing that I learned today -- I mean, I learned a number of things, but the biggest thing was the -- the general said, "Look, based on the -- the -- the hygiene and social practices and other things that we implemented here, you know, they've reduced the throughput."  They've seen a reduction not just in coronavirus, which is limited -- I mean, you're talking like one per class.

Q:  Right.

SEC. ESPER:  The highest was three per class, but they've seen a reduction in a number of other respiratory tract issues, and I'm like, "Good. So are you guys going to keep that going forward?"  They were -- they were talking about, yes, that they're going to -- they're going to maintain some of these practices going forward, and that kind of -- you know, I reminded them that the biggest killer in warfare in history has been infectious disease, actually, and it happened in my unit in the Gulf War.  We -- we -- we do much better today when, but he said they've seen a much lower sick-call rate across the board when it comes to infection.

So, they're going to keep that.  They're going to keep some other practices.  He said that based on how they -- how they brought -- brought the recruits in and they broke them up into smaller groups that they've seen a -- a -- a higher level of unity and esprit; that they've bonded much more quickly.  And, so, that's another thing they're looking at is, you know, how -- how are they tweaking the machine beyond coronavirus to get some of the results that they saw?  And you know, they're -- when this -- this cohort of -- of kids coming through it again.  It's very interesting.

Q:  Can they continue to do that with twice as many people on when they go back up to, like, their full numbers?

SEC. ESPER:  So (inaudible), he told me there was like 70, 75 percent now.  The -- the challenge they have is going to be the -- the segregated piece, because at some point the cadets go back to the Citadel, so they have to figure that piece out.  So, I think that's the question, is -- I can't recall.  I want to say he said they could, but I don't quote me, but he thought they could go high.  They just need to figure out the logistics of it, but...

Q:  Right. We -- we're seeing the (inaudible) now.  Maybe having like more building facilities and stuff, like...

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q: ... just so that you don't have to have everyone crammed into one building.  You can spread out their -- at least for sleeping, and then when you're outside you can keep your space more easily.


Q:  So actually, I want to -- I wonder if you can broaden that a little bit.  If you look at that and the lessons learned, they are for training.  More broadly, what are the lessons you're seeing across the military in this response to COVID?  We saw the hospital ships.  We saw a lot of military reaction in the first wave.  We've talked about preparation for a second wave.  (Inaudible) when you look at this training that they’re learning, what they're learning, what other things have you learned?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I -- I've -- I've had a few conversations with Dr. Fauci and Birx.  We had them in, the entire chain of command, two weeks ago, you - (inaudible). We spent an hour and a half with them.  Here's generally what -- what I've been thinking of what we're taking.  We're looking at -- we're looking at adjusting our practices.

So, first of all, for the -- for the -- for the uniformed people, it is a -- generally, a younger, healthier, fitter population.  So, if they get hit, if they get the virus they're having very low -- either no symptoms or very mild symptoms.  So, that's the good news, right?  The bad news is they tend to be asymptomatic carriers.

Q:  Then they go to bars in town.

SEC. ESPER:  Or, they go home.

Q:  Yeah.

SEC. ESPER:  Or, as he told me -- you know, one of the things the general told me was, because I asked him a lot about their cadre.  The problem is the cadres around these carriers -- and they've taken them home, and in some cases they've got family members on base who they have recovering from cancer or has mom and dads living with them -- who knows, right?

So, the -- the good news is our kids (inaudible), our young men and women are very resilient; on the other hand, they're carriers, and we saw this on the T.R., despite what -- well, it doesn't matter -- at much higher rates than we knew, right?  That was the lesson I -- much higher rates, dramatically higher.

So -- so it's -- it -- it -- it's causing us to think about, maybe we don't need a 14-day quarantine. Actually, Birx and Fauci thought we could go with a fewer number of days in quarantine given their results, but we want to make sure we -- we do things smart. We're looking at that.

You heard his -- what -- the numbers that he briefed today, if he told you, are the same type of numbers I'm hearing.  Again, out of a class of 300 to 400, one infection, maybe three, that -- that are -- that are resulting in some type of symptoms.

So, I think we could do better.  We're -- as we learn more we're -- we're becoming a little bit more risk-averse with our uniformed population, but I've got to keep in mind, we have a larger population that's civilians, contractors, dependents and others, right?

Q:  (Inaudible) much harder (inaudible) --

SEC. ESPER:  And they're -- they're affected -- they're affected in place.  You've got to kind of craft a policy that, you know...

Q: (Inaudible) --

SEC. ESPER:  Because, all of the communities are different, right?  This is mostly a young -- a lot of young people in the basic training centers.  If you go to somewhere like Army War College, Carlisle, PA [Pennsylvania] -- a much older population, and then still some other -- there -- so bases around the country are all very different.  You know, we've got two nursing homes, right, retirement homes.

Q:  Yeah.

SEC. ESPER:  And I've kept on a much higher HPCON [Health Protection Condition] status.

Q:  (Inaudible) when you learned by -- with the Mercy and the Comfort and the Army field hospitals and how much use they got, what -- what -- what were your lessons learned out of some of that that you might treat differently in a second wave?

SEC. ESPER:  Well you -- you know, I -- I've been saying, we've been ahead of need every step of the way on time.  In those cases, I'd rather have capacity that went unused than to be late and not be able to provide.  So, if you look across the board, for the most part, we had a lot of unused capacity out there.  Seattle didn't use the field hospitals. New York didn't -- New York didn't need the Javits the way they thought they would.

The -- the hospital ships in both cities -- and what we ended up doing was adapting, so we ended up disembarking the ships, moving people out of the field hospitals and moving them into the civilian hospitals, because, even in many cases, the civilian hospitals weren't at capacity, but they were burning out the doctors and nurses.  So, I think that's a big lesson learned.

I mean I talk -- I think on another interview, we're looking at a number of different scenarios, you know, one is the second wave.  That's a scenario.  I'm not sure we'll have it.  I think we'll -- General Milley likes to talk about little lanes right?  Here and there, little lanes, and it seems a little bit more likely to me.  But we're planning for all different contingencies.

We had a big meeting today with General Perna to talk Warp Speed and how they're moving out on vaccines and therapeutics and diagnostics.  We can have therapeutics, you know, some promising therapeutics out there that would give us, you know, the cure or cures if you will.

So, a lot of different things that we're looking at, but again, generally, our force is holding pretty strong, they're resilient, we're maintaining high rates.  You know, we've only had one person -- one person too many, but one person out of the active duty military that passed away due to complications from COVID. So --

Q:  But do you think that's sort of -- that -- what you just mentioned about the medical staff moving into the cities to help those shortfalls versus setting up these independent facilities (inaudible), do you think that's maybe a more pragmatic way as you head to (inaudible) down the road?

SEC. ESPER:  I think -- I think -- this is speculation.  I'm not a doctor.

Q:  Right.  Sure.

SEC. ESPER:  I'm not an epidemiologist.  But, if one were to assume that the biggest wave to him is the first wave, we've demonstrated that we have the hospital capacity, the ventilator capacity, all those other things that -- that if we can handle that first wave we can handle anything else after that.

So, I think you're probably correct by -- if I had to pick a track, I'd probably assume that if -- if a community or a city, or even, you know, we're looking out abroad now, needing some help, what we can provide would be PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] equipment and doctors, and that we know how to build hospital capacity, but it seems like the more critical thing is the medical professionals.

Q:  So, you had this big testing plan, right, and you're hoping vaccine by the end of the year.  Is there any push in the -- well, you did say definitely (inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  (Inaudible) -- I was talking about the fact of the testing.

Q:  Yes, yes.  So, in the kind of the interim and I guess that's not many months now, but have you made any push to try to get antibody tests out to see if you can get on the backend and try to clear some people from moving around?

SEC. ESPER:  We're just starting to do those.  I took one of those a couple of weeks ago, and we're still waiting to hear -- you know --

Q:  Yes.

SEC. ESPER: -- I did it at the White House.  So, we're waiting to see that be helpful to find out.  We're also looking to identify one of the things we're talking about internally is, is -- we have this conversation with Birx and Fauci -- is identifying people who we know had COVID, who have identified them, reaching out to them, testing them.  If they have sufficient levels of antibodies, then can we do the --

Q:  (Inaudible).

SEC. ESPER: -- yes, I'm trying to think of the -- you know, I forget the full phrase, but it's a -- the plasma substitution where you can get -- not a vaccination, but it's a cure and it reduces the symptoms and stuff, we started that, to collect those samples and do that.

And I -- you know, I've talked to the services the other day and I said, if we can produce this and give you units of blood or whatever, plasma, to take aboard ships that are deployed, would you want that.  And, they're all yes.  That would be helpful.  Not -- not as -- not as a cure all be all, but as another tool in the toolkit, right?

Q:  Sure, while you're waiting for --

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, so you can -- you can -- you can isolate, you can -- you can move them to an ICU [Intensive Care Unit], you can treat them, you can give them plasma, you can do all these different things.  It just gives them another tool for the doctors on the ground, you need in those circumstances to employ.


Q:  Wait, Mark. I still had a question.  Can you just give us your assessment on Afghanistan?  There's a lot out there about the president wanting troops home by Election Day.

What's the realm of the possible for you right now?  And, I assume as always there's a range of options that you all are looking at, but what's the realm of the possible for you at this point?

SEC. ESPER:  You know, right now, we're – you know, we're encouraged by the steps we see happening in Afghanistan.  You know, there have been cease fire, which is good news.  We're seeing a greater exchange of prisoners.  It looks like the Afghan government has organized itself in a way to sometime soon begin future Afghan negotiations.  That will be a good step forward.

You know, as I said, if you went on a -- if you went on that Afghanistan trip with me when I came back long, windy, bumpy road, and it's been a long, windy, bumpy road, but we're seeing positive signs.  Our ambition is not to be the cause for that -- that agreement breaking down, so we've been living up to our end of the agreement.

We will meet our 8,600 milestone in time.  No doubt in my mind, and then we got to look – you know, we got to look beyond that.  That was always the thing is what's beyond that.  Talked a lot about conditions based, about what we got to do, and I've been doing it since I've been in the job now.

I think I've been a year here now is what's the next step?  What are the options for those next steps?  And, that's my -- my job is to work with the -- with the commanders to figure out what those options are, and present the president a full range of options.

All the pros and cons with each, and then to make recommendations based on the -- the incident we wanted based on the policy, the incident we want to achieve.

Q:  Do you worry though that going to zero too soon takes away some of the incentive for the Taliban to keep up their end of the bargain?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I'm not going to comment on what -- what options may be out there and what the pros and cons are.  Those are things we got to present privately to the -- to the president.

But, look, the -- the Taliban, they have an instinct mind, the Afghan government.  The most important thing right now is Afghans sit down with Afghans and figure out the way forward.  This -- we said over and over, this isn't going to be resolve -- resolved through a military solution.

It's going to be a political agreement.  That means both sides have to sit down and compromise and come up with a solution that works for all Afghan people.  The Afghan people deserve better than what they've had in the last 19, 20 years.

Q:  (Inaudible) done in the next six months?

SEC. ESPER:  What's that?

Q:  Do you think that could get done in the next six months?

SEC. ESPER:  It's -- it's proven not to be as -- move as quickly as we'd prefer.  So, I don't put a time limit on it.  We had a timeline of May of next year but that -- that May of next year timeline was premised on everything moving at a set pace.

And, clearly, the Taliban haven't fully lived up to their obligations.  The Afghan government hasn't lived up to the expectations, and I -- I think it's fair to say we have -- we have lived up to both.

And if there's -- there's a whole other set of players out there too called our allies Resolute Support who we work very closely with.  So, look these are -- it's good to see they're making some progress over there -- I mean the Afghans, Afghan (inaudible).

Q:  Is there anything else you wanted to say anything on--

SEC. ESPER:  What did you guys learn today?  Because you may -- you may have picked up something I missed.

Q:  It seemed -- to me it looked pretty much like boot camp or basic training looks like and sounds like except the masks.


Q:  I mean it -- it did appear - what we could see didn't appear all that different.

Unfortunately, there was no one in the tent city.  They left yesterday.  Yes, so we weren't able to see the - and what was really more structured social distancing framework that they had.

Q:  I asked one of the DIs [Drill Instructor] if there was anymore anxiety or nerves about everyone - so many people being away from home for the first time.  Thinking maybe they're going to get sick.  Maybe their family members are going to get sick, and they're not going to be able get back to see them, and she kind of smoothed that over and was, like, no, everybody here like knows what they're supposed to do, and they know they can call grandma if she's not well or whatever.  But I was little bit, I'm not sure if I believe that entirely.  I think there's got to be some level of concern more than usual.

SEC. ESPER:  I asked the same question, because that was one of the concerns early on - months ago - when we were figuring out how to adapt across the services.  Is what if mom and dad, aunt and uncle great - be concerned.

Q: W hen did you feel like (inaudible) slip out (inaudible) all the time?  I can only imagine this is like ten times more stressful.

SEC. ESPER:  He said that.

Q:  It normally is.

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, he said they didn't - early on there was some anxiety by parents about kids going off at this point in time, but he said that it all died down pretty quick when they knew all the measures that they were taking.  That they had health care and just wasn't proven out for the young people to be what it was.

Q:  Yes.

SEC. ESPER:  But he’s had none of that.

Q:  I mean I'm not surprised that parents or girlfriends are going to call just to check up more than they normally would, but I was surprised to hear that the recruits themselves were still adjusting just as well as they did before, because it's already such an adjustment.

SEC. ESPER:  (Inaudible).

Q: (Inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  (Inaudible)  They're so focused on.  They completely forget about this.  They're so focused on.

Q:  Not being yelled at anymore.

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, right.

Q:  An interesting thing also is the way they're doing it differently than the Army is.  Because --

SEC. ESPER:  They're all doing it a little bit different.

Q:  Right, so they - they're having a (inaudible) kind of desegregated and isolated for two weeks.  But they need to (inaudible).  The Army is front loading their classrooms into those first two weeks.

And what General Glynn said that was interesting was they were (inaudible) are coming out of their isolation period with better questions on - better prepared, and more focused.

SEC. ESPER:  They told me the same thing.  They said they're coming out of their restricted period more confident, more at ease, and I said why is that?

He goes they're just - they have more time to study and focus, and they're just coming in a little bit more, a little smarter.

Q:  Yes.

SEC. ESPER:  Which is interesting.  The other thing that he said to me - talked about a best practice - that they're looking really hard at.  Is - so when they graduate at the end of 13 weeks, it used to be everybody came down - family - and they have the graduation, and then they would take off for like 10 days.  They'd go home.  And, he said now, because families aren't coming in and all that, they're not doing the 10 days.

What they're doing is giving like three or four days of limited or no duty - I can't forget - I can't recall.  But, what he's saying is, with only three or four days of light duty or no duty as compared to 10 days with going home, they're showing up at the next phase of training in much better shape.  They haven't been out drinking and causing problems.  They're more focused, and they're seeing a better product entering the next phase of training.

Q:  Yes.

SEC. ESPER:  So, they're starting to think maybe we won't go back to the 10 days off.

Q:  Well yes. It just seems a little -- I mean you want to give someone a little bit of liberty, but this counterintuitive then they just have (inaudible), and then it's like OK go be free for a weekend.

SEC. ESPER:  (Inaudible) --

Q:  Come back and get your crap back together.

SEC. ESPER:  So, the good thing is they recognize you just can't take them from one to the other.  Maybe you give them like four days off locally, or something like that.  Don't let them go home.  Because, he said, a lot of kids join because they're trying to escape home.

Q:  Right.

SEC. ESPER:  --and they're putting them back in an environment that they don't want to be in or around, bad influences or influencers.

So, it's really interesting to me.  It's funny.  You may come out with a better boot camp.

We, even once coronavirus fades, or we have a vaccine, we may come out with a better boot camp that produces a better product.

Q:  Yes.

SEC. ESPER:  Because of things learned.

Q:  Right.  (Inaudible).  Instead of just like a hurricane immediately, and then --

SEC. ESPER:  And the fear - the fear of day one is kind of --

Q:  --the fear of --

SEC. ESPER:  -- Okay, I’m here now.  You know.  I know --

Q: (Inaudible) everyone.

SEC. ESPER:  Bombarding.  I've got roommates.  I've got people who share the same fear.  I mean, who knows all the dynamics?  It's really --

Q:  Are you - are you (inaudible) washing your (inaudible) are you learning that maybe people actually do (inaudible) specific (inaudible) more productive teleworking --

SEC. ESPER:  I said that to you guys.

Q:  (Inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  I said that to you guys.  I have reports from the CMO [Chief Management Officer] that they see bright spots where their teleworkers are more productive.

And, then, of course, there's dark spots where people are less productive.

So, my view is, if people are more productive, we should look at adapting the workforce or the work process by (inaudible) on my time in the private sector where you come in one day a week or something like that, but, we've got to take a hard look at that.

Q: (Inaudible).

SEC. ESPER: I think so, I haven't dug into those yet, because right now we're focusing more on, you know, the tiering - the testing – testing, tiering, and Warp Speed and things like that but --

Q: (Inaudible).  Yesterday they said where in the Pentagon Reservation (inaudible) was in like the eighth day of declining or whatever, COVID rates and all, (inaudible) 14 days you could move on to the next phase as long as the community itself (inaudible).

Q:  Is the new policy public yet?

STAFF:  I don’t think it’s gone public yet.  (Inaudible)


SEC. ESPER:  Yes, so I don't know (inaudible) good policy, public and I don't think it's gone public yet and I (inaudible) --


SEC. ESPER: (Inaudible).  Yes so, I mean, if it's not your (inaudible).  What we've done is said lifting the blanket --

Q:  Right, I know that all came out yesterday (inaudible) --

SEC. ESPER:  Okay, so what I think she - what I think Lisa Hershman was referring to - and I said this, I think I said this to you, Meghan, three for four weeks ago, we're looking at two pillars --

Q:  Right.

SEC. ESPER:  Okay, so one is the state or the region of the country.  The other one is the garrison.  And I think what she's doing is measuring that out right now, because the state, in this case the D.C. area and all that, has to be compliant with the Open Up America guidelines, which called for - there's three subtenants, one of which is a 14-day decline in symptoms --

Q:  Right.

SEC. ESPER:  --and a 14 decline - day decline in cases; and the third one, I think, is sufficient medical capacity.

Q:  Right.

SEC. ESPER:  So, I think what she was saying is, is that D.C. is, the area is in day eight.

Q:  Now is she at the Pentagon?  (Inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, but I --

Q:  (Inaudible) in Northern Virginia (inaudible).

STAFF:  I don't know, but that's not what she meant is (inaudible).  Let me try to run that down for you.

Q:  Because (inaudible) I think obviously that even if the Pentagon is doing well, we still have to wait for Northern Virginia, Maryland, D.C. to also be --

SEC. ESPER:  Well, that's the problem.  That's why (inaudible) place.  It should be -- just because we're in Virginia and Bolling isn't.

Q:  (Inaudible)

SEC. ESPER:  That it -- it -- it should all make sense, because otherwise people say, no that doesn't make sense, right?  And you mess with dependent’s heads, and soldiers’ and sailors’ heads, so there has to be some, in essence, a coordination between -- and they look here, at Meyer, Fort Meyer, Bethesda in Maryland, you've got facilities in -- Marine Corps barracks in Fort McNair in D.C.  You need three different jurisdictions, so we've got get there, right, but we should clarify (inaudible).

Q:  I'm just wondering if in your mind you were thinking, oh yes, we're almost to our 14 days to (inaudible) or not, right? (Inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  Well we should clarify what she said, because the other thing is, and it may be that the Pentagon is sitting in Arlington, but these people are coming from D.C. and Maryland.

Q:  Right.  And even if -- I mean, so D.C.'s like maybe we are on the decline, but we still right now like have the highest infection rate in the country.  So, like those shelter-in-place orders are not going to live.  So, you're going to have like two out of three --

SEC. ESPER:  So, my understanding is, it's been -- that we are on the decline, but we still are the - or one of the highest - in the -- because I'm watching it.

Q:  Right.  Right.

SEC. ESPER:  We've redeployed every city in the United States except for New York, L.A., New Orleans and D.C., is my mental recollection of where we are, and so -- and I know -- I know New York's have gone down and we're pulling out of the others, but I think D.C. --


SEC. ESPER:  Yes, it's just a late bloomer.

Q:  Yes.

SEC. ESPER:  So I -- we'll clarify that.


SEC. ESPER:  That's the thinking.  So, the thing is, in the -- just as an -- as an area turns green, and we've (inaudible) especially to your readers, if Texas turns green, and Fort Hood turns green, then let's say Seattle and Washington State turns green (inaudible) shape, then we could do PCS [Permanent Change of Station] moves in between.  So, you can move in between greens, but you can't move between green and red.

Q:  That was kind of a clarification of this meeting yesterday and the press conference, because we couldn't figure out whether these parameters were for the (inaudible) like (inaudible).  So, it was like, okay, so you can go to a green place, but like what if you're coming from a red place where I know like it has to be --

SEC. ESPER:  No, because we don't want to import a disease, so it has to be -- it's like Garanimals, anybody who knows (inaudible) -- the colors got to match.  The colors got to match.

Q:  Makes sense.


Q:  All right.  Yes.

SEC. ESPER:  Thanks.

Q:  You want to talk about whether there's going to be a Fourth of July parade?

Q:  Oh my.

Q:  (Inaudible)