Department of Defense Senior Leaders Host Global Virtual Town Hall on COVID-19

May 28, 2020
Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley; Senior Enlisted Adviser to the Chairman Ramon Colon-Lopez

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: Well, hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us today for this virtual town hall. I am, of course, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. I'm joined by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley and by the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman, Colon-Lopez. I thank you both for joining me here today.

I first want to thank the 55,000 American service members who are still out on the streets of our great nation helping their fellow citizens. We are in many cities to this day. We, of course, have the National Guard, 45,000 strong of that number, who is out helping, whether it's testing, distributing supplies, and assisting their governors in a number of ways, shapes, and forms.

But I'm just very proud of what we've done as a service, as the Armed Services, to support the American people and to help us fight coronavirus. As you know, there is a -- the light gets even stronger at the end of the tunnel at this point in time. But that said, we are also still preparing for the future and making sure we understand the trajectory of the coronavirus.

At this point in time we -- we continue to stick by our three priorities that we've outlined from the beginning, going back to January; that is: priority number one, protect our service members, our department civilians, and their families; number two, ensure we maintain our national security mission capabilities; and number three, provide full support to the whole-of-nation, whole-of-government response.

With that, as we've moved through this virus over the last few months and fought the good fight, we have provided additional guidance for senior leaders and commanders, and continue to protect our people and preserve operational readiness.

First, we are transitioning to a conditions-based phased approach to personnel movement and travel. That memorandum has gone out this week. It will improve these conditions -- these travel and deployment as conditions warrant. This guidance will lessen the burden on DoD personnel and their families, while ensuring continued operations in a safe manner.

The second, we are providing commanders with additional guidance as they look to change health protection condition levels at DoD installations. That guidance has gone out, as well. These measures will allow our commanders to make risk-based decisions as they begin to return to normal operations in line with local conditions, CDC guidance and in consultation with their medical leadership.

Yesterday I had the chance to visit the Marines at Parris Island to see firsthand how the Corps is conducting basic training as we adapt the force to a new normal. It was very interesting to watch the training to understand how they've adapted Marine basic training and some of the lessons learned they have taken already with regard to the coronavirus.

As we continue to do our part, we must all continue to reduce the spread of virus by including proper hygiene, social distancing, using face covers – coverings, and the other measures that we've put out in a number of memorandums and guidance and virtual town halls like this. Again, that will be important to protecting our force going forward.

And with that I'm again, once again proud of all of our personnel as they answer our nation's call. I'm confident that we will get through this and we'll be stronger than before.

And with that, I'd like to turn over the mic to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for his opening comments.

GENERAL MARK A. MILLEY: Thanks, Secretary, and I appreciate that. It's a great honor and really, a privilege to be here and talking to, I think, well over one million, and I'm told it approaches two million people on the Net, and that's great. It's great to have an opportunity to speak with everyone and get a little bit of feedback. We've got a whole series of questions here, and we want to get those questions.

But before we do that, I just want to let everyone know how we're very inspired, the Secretary and I, the SEAC and really, all the senior leaders here in Washington, D.C., are really inspired by the performance of the United States military since the beginning of this crisis. We have had literally tens of thousands of folks in uniform, Active, Guard, Reserve, going into harm's way to protect the American people.

That has been a remarkable achievement and the results been amazingly effective, and the contribution of the United States military in support of FEMA and HHS has been extraordinary, and to help out the American people. So thanks to all of you and what you do every day.

And at the same time, we've been able to achieve the Secretary's objectives, which is protect the force and -- and -- and not only help the American people, but also maintain high levels of readiness to assure that our day-to-day missions of deterring adversaries and making sure that we help friends and allies around the world, and to prevent any sort of outbreaks of violence and war is done every single day.

So whether you're flying an airplane or sailing in a ship or you're in a sub or if you're in a missile silo or if you're in an infantry battalion of a Marine or Army unit, what you're doing is important. And we thank you for doing that every single day.

Keep your eye on the mission, continue to take care of yourselves, continue to take care of your families, and we definitely appreciate your service every single day, so thank you, and I'll turn it over right now to the SEAC, but thanks again, we look forward to your questions.

SENIOR ENLISTED ADVISOR TO THE CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS RAMON COLON-LOPEZ: Thank you Chairman, thank you Mr. Secretary. So now the timing of this particular town hall is critical as we begin our phased approach to relaxing restrictions and reopening some of the services that have been shut down since the beginning of the outbreak, but we are very cognizant that these changes are impacting, even with the restrictions, you and your family.

So we encourage you to continue to send the feedback to us so that we can go ahead and provide the best solutions to the issues. I would like to point that the low infection and the low mortality rate in the Department of Defense, it's been critical based on the actions that each and every one of you have taken, following the guidance and making sure that you adhere by the guidance that is provided by the department, so I want to commend you for that.

And also, we'd like to tell you that we look forward to your questions because, again, we have a condition-based approach that is guidance driven, or feedback driven, by the comments that you provided, so please keep it coming. And with that sir, I will like to go ahead and get started, take the questions.

STAFF: Gentleman, I’m Commander Morgan Murphy, let's just get right into the questions. The first comes from Melinda Carol Fail, who works for the Air Force. Mr. Secretary, this question is for you.

She writes I'm a DoD civilian and have been successfully teleworking since the 18th of March, how can I be assured that my workspace is cleaned, safe, and maintained according to the CDC guidelines in order to feel confident to return to the workplace? If I don't feel safe, may I continue to telework?

SEC. ESPER: So, first of all Melinda, thank you for your service to our country as the DoD civilian, it's very important what you do and we appreciate, again, your service. Let me say that we are not going to open up the Pentagon or other installations unless we are confident that it is a safe place to work. That is our commitment to the force.

I know that the commanders and office directors and managers are making those decisions -- presently, with regard to opening up. And I will tell, in some cases we have DoD civilians, or uniform personnel, who have unique circumstances, whether they have their own vulnerability or maybe family members at home that they're concerned about.

And in all those cases, we would ask that the commanders, the office directors or managers, to deal with those on a case-by-case basis to make sure that we're not putting people in an unsafe environment that could transmit itself back home or something like that.

So we will take it on a case-by-case approach, but we're not ask anybody to come back to work in an unsafe environment.

STAFF: Mr. Chairman, this follow-up question is for you. Many have speculated about the effectiveness of an antibodies test, is the department planning antibodies testing?

GEN. MILLEY: We are. In fact, we're doing some antibody testing right now, and we're expanding that online, hopefully we'll be looking at prioritizing the various tiers that we have, and we'll be doing antibody testing for critical tier 1 units, such as those who go into subs or the nuclear triad or some of our quick reaction forces.

So, the short answer is yes for the antibody testing, and the secondary part of that is for convalescent plasma. So part of that antibody testing is not only to make sure that you have some antibodies and you may have some degree of immunity as an individual, but we may want to ask you to stick your arm out and donate blood in order to give through the process and give some plasma.

And what that can then do is help others, who especially severely ill. And if we can do that, then we'll be on a good path towards getting some really powerful therapeutics and there’s a lot of people working on that right now. But the short answer is yes, we do intend to incorporate antibody testing throughout the force.

STAFF: This next question comes from Tech Sergeant Justin Greco, who works at DISA headquarters JOC (joint operating center) at Fort Meade, he asks due to the rising costs of goods and services around the world, has there been any thought to increasing the BAS, that's the basic housing -- basic allowance for subsistence, or starting a temporary CONUS cost of living adjustment, in high cost areas.

He writes, I've already seen the costs of goods ride at the commissary up to 15-200 percent plus, for example, a pound of cheap ground beef has gone from $2.30 a pound to almost $6. I know my grocery costs have gone up, and some junior enlisted families on one income have mentioned things are getting pretty tight. Turn this over to SEAC to answer.

SEAC COLON-LOPEZ: Thank you, and thank you Sergeant Greco for that great question, and clearly the financial impact has not been overlooked at any stage of this pandemic response by the department, but what I would like to start with is that we have mechanisms to go ahead and plus up the ability for families, especially those families, that are out of work to be able to go ahead and be able to sustain the feeding and care of their families.

But regarding the BASs, the basic allowance for subsistence, the cost of living and pay raises, and other monetary benefits are negotiated during every budget cycle every year. And I am sure that the impacts of COVID and the pandemic on the increasing goods will be reflected here in future national defense authorization acts reviews.

GEN. MILLEY: And I would ask Sergeant Greco, I know he can't respond live right now, but maybe he can send me an email later. I see his logo is the Philadelphia Flyers and I'm just curious why he would support that team as opposed to say the Boston Bruins.

SEAC COLON-LOPEZ: Or the New York Rangers.

GEN. MILLEY: Yes, Maybe.

SEC. ESPER: Or the Pittsburgh Penguins.

GEN. MILLEY: Oh, the Penguins, oh my God.

STAFF: Watch out Sergeant Greco. Sir, this next question is for you, Mr. Secretary. Turning from personal budgets now to the department's budget, there's speculation that cuts may be coming to the military because of lost tax revenue during COVID-19. What's your position on future cuts and how could this affect our efforts to counter China and Russia?

SEC. ESPER: Well, a budget is an important part of providing for our national security. Lawmakers recognize that the president has recognized that -- under President Trump, we've had three very good years of budget increases that have allowed us to rebuild readiness and to modernize the force. But as you look at what's transpired over the last few months, we recognized that Congress has spent over $3 trillion to deal with coronavirus.

And it has been very helpful to the American people. There is talk about another major supplemental bill, possibly in the trillions as well. So if you look at our national debt today, it's over $25 trillion dollars. So what does that mean, that means, and not to get too technical, but the ratio of our debt to our GDP is 121 percent, over 120 percent. It hasn't been that way for decades, maybe not since the end of World War II.

So the country faces a tough fiscal situation that's going to require some hard choices. And at times like that, the people look to cut discretionary spending, of which DoD is one of those.

And my view has been, and I've said it publicly on many occasions, that in order to sustain this progress we made in terms of taking care of our people, in terms of implementing the national defense strategy, in terms of dealing with strategic competitors, China and then Russia, what we need is 3 percent to 5 percent real growth annually to deal with that.

And I think that will continue to be a challenge. I've been talking about this for a few years now, since -- since my early days as Army Secretary, and since my days now of coming on a year as Secretary of Defense.

So, that's why we will continue to make the case of why DoD needs that increasing top line, how it's important to our people, our families, our DoD civilians, and our service members, of course, but also readiness and modernization, the upkeep of our homes, our installations, our bases.

But that said, we don't necessarily control that, the Congress does in many ways. So, what we need to do is we need to tighten our own belts, and so I've made as one of -- it's built into our National Defense Strategy is reform and that means all of us looking hard at what we're doing and ask ourselves, do we still need to do that, or do we need to do it in a way that which we've been doing it? Are there more ways to save time, money, or manpower in order to reallocate those things, time, money or manpower into higher priority items?

So, that's going to continue to be a focus of mine. Again, we can only control so much of our fate when it comes to the top line, we need that increased top line, but at the same time everybody, every manager, every leader, every commander, every director, every supervisor has to do what they can to help tighten the budget, so we can get as much as we can from those precious dollars that the American taxpayers give us every year to defend our great country.

STAFF: Sir, this next question is for you as well, it came in from Major Frank Malichai of U.S. Air Force at Canadian Forces Base Winnipeg. He asked, your memorandum for a transition to a conditioned based phased approach for personnel movement outlines criteria for host nations that host greater than 1,000 personnel, but does not outline criteria for those of us stationed in nations hosting smaller numbers.

Can you provide the criteria which must be met for personnel movement to resume into our host nation with a smaller number of DoD personnel?

SEC. ESPER: Sure. You know, the -- we have DoD personnel in 140 plus countries around the world, so what we didn't want to do is get into the business of trying to list every single location around the world in which we have people.

But, to answer the question directly, the same criteria that are outlined in that memorandum for -- for the countries listed are the same criteria that apply for Canada and any number of dozens of other countries where we have U.S. personnel.

So, it will be both an installational approach, in terms of the assessment of certain criteria at the installation, and then there's the regional, in this case Canada or the region of Canada, I don't know which -- which province he's in, we would still apply the Opening Up America criteria. So, it's the three basic criteria, do we see a decline in cases over a 14 day period? Do we see a decline of symptoms over a 14 day period? And is there an adequate medical capacity?

And I'm referring back to -- to the memorandum that went out in the past week or so, with this -- you know, the verbatim listing of the criteria. But commanders will apply that same -- those same standards and principles with regard to lifting restrictions for either unit travel or personell travel.

STAFF: Mr. Secretary, Mr. Chairman, this question is for both of you. Beth Irvin, who's stationed in Goldsborough, North Carolina, asks, what has the military done to implement new training guidelines for senior leaders and new recruits? What are the training lessons learned?

SEC. ESPER: You know, I'll take first stab at that, since I came back from Parris Island yesterday and I had a good discussion with the commanders on the ground, with the Sergeant Major and with the drills, who were taking the recruits through basic training. And first of all, they've had very good success rates with regard to applying the memorandums we've put out, the guidance we've put out, the provisions of PPE and other things.

So, on an average class coming in each week or so, of 300 to 400, on average they find that one person has been infected, and usually mild or no symptoms. So -- and they're able to, through different practices, separate and treat and take care of that.

You know, when I went through -- when I watching training yesterday, watching the Marines in pugil training, obstacle course, you name it, I noticed they were going through the training, they were appropriately socially distanced when it made sense. And at all times they wore face coverings. So, we've seen a dramatic drop-off.

But one of the things that was most interesting to me that the chain of command raised is that by putting these practices in place for arriving and existing recruits to prevent coronavirus spread, they've also found that they prevent the spread of other respiratory tract infections.

So, they've seen sick call go down remarkably across the board and they've seen a higher number of recruits available for training day in and day out. And I think that's a clear example, a clear lessoned learned of one of the things I believe they are going to carry forward once we get beyond the coronavirus as a good practice for -- for recruits at basic training.

And they had a number of other lessons learned that I've asked them to push back up, that we can incorporate and share across the force, across the services. So, there is good coming out of this, lessons learned, I think, that will make us even more effective and better well into the future.

STAFF: Mr. Chairman --

GEN. MILLEY: And I think there's going to be lessons learned at all different levels. So, we have to -- this is not a situation where we have one size fits all. So the key -- the key lesson learned here is to empower commanders to develop their mission essential task list and to develop appropriate training strategies within the broader guidance that we have out there with respect to COVID, things like masks and social distancing and so on.

So, at the individual level basic training, individual skills training in units, whether regardless of service, there's a certain -- and about 60 to 70 percent of training is that at the individual level, to include leader training in various courses for non-commissioned officers and officers. The safety measures can be applied, the precautionary measures can be applied relatively easy for individual training.

The challenge gets when you get into collective training. How do you train a crew in a tank or a crew in a bomber, or how do you train a subs crew for collective training when you're automatically in close confines?

So, there we have to apply some other lessons learned, such as quarantine prior to getting into either the tank or the sub or the aircraft, for X amount of days. The science is becoming more clear as we go along. It started out at maybe you had to have 30 days, then it went to 21 days, and then it went down to 14 days. And maybe you can squeeze it out at 10 days.

So, but there's a period of time where we need to isolate and quarantine prior to getting people together in a close quarters. And then you still have to wear the mask, and you still have to maintain all the personal hygiene, et cetera. So, there's a bunch of lessons learned for collective training that have to get done, the crew, the bomber, and the missile crew, and so on.

And then if you get into larger scale exercises, that's a different set of lessons that we are starting to learn. There's an opportunity here really to leverage virtual training, a lot of simulated training that can be done and can be done safely. And you can get as much bang for the buck as you can in many cases in terms of repetitions out of virtual training as you can out of live training.

So, there's a lot of lessons learned, we're collecting all of those up, and we're disseminating them very rapidly throughout all the force for all the different levels, whether it's leader training, collective training, or individual training. 

STAFF: Sir, I'll turn this next question to you as well. Benjamin Ridenour, who's in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait wants to know, for PCS Permanent Change of Station locations such as Kuwait, why can't we PCS?

Units are deploying and redeploying individuals on TCS Temporary Change of Station and TDY Temporary Duty Travel, can come and go, but if you PCS here you can't leave. He writes, I'm going on 14 months in theater with no real date for when I can leave. Taking care of family has many fronts.

GEN. MILLEY: Yes, and I appreciate his comment, I know it's a tremendous sacrifice on him, but it's for his safety and for the safety of his family, in fact; it’s for the safety of all the force that we put in very, very strict travel restrictions. Now, the memo that the secretary signed out this week is going to ease up those travel restrictions and I believe that he will see the results of that, and I believe that he'll probably be able to PCS here relatively shortly.

 But having said that, the reason he had to stay an extra two months is for the broader safety of him, his family, and the force. These are necessary things to do; we, the United States have lost 100,000 people in the last four, five months.

Thankfully we the military have not lost those kinds of numbers. We have unfortunately had three deaths and that's horrible, but that's nothing compared to the nation at large. But this is for his safety and his family's safety and I know he will understand that. But these rules are being eased up here shortly and I think he'll get his PCS orders pretty quick.

STAFF: Mr. Secretary, this next question is for you. You've had reservists and National Guardsmen called up in response to COVID, and this is a two part question. The first is, some reservists have orders that may last longer than the mission itself. If the mission ends first, will those orders be cut short? And the second part of the question is, are you supportive of National Guard members being extended?

SEC. ESPER: Sure, well I had the virtue of speaking to this from a number of perspectives; not just for us it now but as a former member of the National Guard and as a former member of the Army Reserve. So I understand the situation they're in. So here's my view on this. I think the guard and reserves have done a fantastic job out there on the streets of America.

We have the 45,000 guardsmen deployed now, I think still to all 50 states, three territories, and definitely the District of Columbia. And my view remains, I've said so publically, I've communicated this throughout the interagency that if they are in valid mission assignment approved by FEMA, then we should certainly extend them.

And the mission assignment will dictate how long that takes, as far as I'm concerned until a mission is accomplished, if you will. But you can't apply a one-size-fits-all rule to these things. As we know with regard to the National Guard, it's 50 states, 50 governors who are employing their guardsmen in a variety of tasks. Some of them are identical across states, but some are very different, they're unique to the state and the challenges each state faces. So each mission assignment is a little different.

The scope may be broader or narrower, the number of people doing it may be different, and the time duration certainly will change from state to state. So again, I go back to, if it's a valid mission assignment, we should certainly extend it, and we should extend that mission assignment until the mission is accomplished.

And if the mission ends early, we've got to make sure on the back end that we provide enough time for a guardsman or reservist to do a restriction of movement, if you will, so that if they've been exposed, if they've been on the front line and there's a chance that they've been infected or they are an asymptomatic carrier, that they don't carry that back home, back to their community, or back to their family, if you will.

So we've got to work through the details of that. We speak every week with the National Guard Bureau. I've spoken with -- the chairman and I both multiple times with the TAGs of the respective states. So we're working this very close with them. But that has been and remains my view with regard to extension to mission assignments.

STAFF: Mr. Secretary, there's a follow-up to that question. Many have speculated that this crisis will only ease up when there is a vaccine available. Can you describe how the department is working with other government agencies and the private sector on Operation Warp Speed? How confident are you that we will have a vaccine by December?

SEC. ESPER: Sure. Well first of all, the Department of Defense has been working on vaccines and therapeutics and diagnostics for several months now. My first trip when -- I think it was probably February, was to Fort Detrick, Maryland, where we have some of the world's best researchers and scientists who, at the time, walked me through the labs, showed me how they were beginning their work on the coronavirus and improving our testing machine capability, and of course we have other great researchers at places like DARPA and Walter Reed. And so the military has been on this now for several months, trying to work through vaccines and therapeutics.

Now recently in the last couple of weeks, we have joined with HHS -- Health and Human Services. Secretary Azar and I will be co-chairing Operation Warp Speed. The goal of Operation Warp Speed is to produce 300 million doses of a vaccine by January 1, 2021. We have appointed as our co-chair, representative to that Operation Warp Speed, General Gus Perna, who is the head of Army materiel command. He has a great background, I've worked with him before as has the chairman. I'm confident that he'll do a fantastic job.

He's already moved up here to D.C. and has taken charge of the workload, has been a meeting with folks and we've -- we've had two separate meetings with him now to make sure that he has all the resources, authority, and support he needs to accomplish the task at hand. And his task, the task of Operation Warp Speed, is to deliver at scale those vaccines, but also they're looking at producing and supplying and distributing therapeutics and diagnostics.

And his particular task will be to make sure we get the manufacturing up to meet that mission in time and then distribute it. And so again, he's working hard at that, we have the best scientists and researchers in the world, we're partnering, not just with an interagency, but also with the private sector. And again I'm confident we will be able to deliver vaccine at scale in time.

STAFF: Mr. Chairman, this question is for you. Lisa Rogers from Huntsville, Alabama, asks another question about the stop movement. She writes, why can't the travel stop-movement order be lifted with strict precautions in place, such as quarantine before and after travel, facemasks, only using military flights, et cetera. The stop movement doesn't even allow for people to prepare for job changes, such as the ability to sell their house if they awaiting a government move. She thinks this needs to ease up, sir?

GEN. MILLEY: I think she'll find when she has an opportunity to take a look at the memorandum that the secretary signed this week, that she'll see that it is easing up. Again, I want to reiterate as I mentioned to Benjamin a little earlier, that this is a situation there was new, and we are in our, I guess fourth month almost fifth month, and there's been a lot of death, pain, and suffering throughout the entire country.

So the secretary and the Department of Defense took those measures that were very strict in order to protect the force and to protect the families, and it was exactly the right thing to do. And those efforts have proven to be effective.

Look at our death rates and look at our infection rates in the military relative to society as a whole; although they're still severe and they're still terrible for those that have passed away, they're relatively low. So I appreciate what Lisa is saying and I think that the most recent memo you are going to see an easing of those restrictions. And then general officers within the chains of command do have waiver authority.

And as the secretary just mentioned about vaccines, it has been said many times before by many people that we're in a war and sort of the secret weapon here is a vaccine, and we are very confident that a vaccine is A, going to be on line with numbers and we're going to -- and it's going to be safe, protective and effective, et cetera. But between now and then, there's some time and it's at least measured in months out through the first of January.

So we need to continue taking care of our appropriate precautionary measures in terms of distance, hygiene, travel restrictions, and a wide variety of other things. It is easing up, but we still need to be attentive to it in order to prevent any kind of resurgence and to continue to protect the force, both the troops and their families. 

SEC. ESPER: I'll just pile on a little bit and say look we all share the same view. We all want to get back to normal or a new normal as soon as possible. We've all been cooped up at home and we've placed restrictions on our own movement. We practice day in day out social distancing and so our families are feeling the same thing.

I have a college age daughter who's been stuck at home away from school and cooped up with her parents for a few months. So we all face these unique situations and we're all anxious to get on with things as best we can as well.

But you know the Chairman's right and the SEAC’s right; it's all about protecting our force, our people and I know for some it may not, it may seem like we're being too cautious, and for other folks it seems too risky. We've also been at this for five months now. DoD has been involved since January, that's when the first guidance went out.

That's when the American service members first welcomed back our fellow citizens from China and helped put them at a reserve base in California. So we've been at this for five months, it's been a lot longer for the many Americans and we've placed tough restrictions on our people all to protect the force and all to preserve our mission readiness. And we've been very successful our numbers relative to the broader population or relative to any other population have been very good.

Tragic for those who have lost folks or who have been hospitalized, but those numbers are far, far lower because of the measure we've taken place. Which is why we want to be very deliberate, phased, conditions-based as we let up as well because what we don't want to do is risk our people.

So again we're all very conscience of these challenges that are being faced out there by friends and family and workers and colleagues, we share them as well to a large degree. And we are as anxious as everyone else is to kind of let up and start letting the force move and do what it needs to do.

And we're not going to get back to a normal the way it was; it will be a new normal, if you will, even lessons learned that we adopt from this will create a new normal in many ways. But we will get there. We've made a lot of great progress in the last four or five months

We've now, I've signed out, or we signed out, a handful of memos and we will work our way through it. And I guarantee the next time that we sit down for a virtual town hall in three or four weeks we'll be a different place, we'll be further along that path, and you'll see the military in retrospect will be looking much different than what it does today.

STAFF: Turning now to the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman, Chandra Kay Ritter Setback of Ramstein Germany has a question about vehicles. Soldiers were bussed from AIT, that's Advanced Individual Training, directly to their first duty station, Fort Campbell, and were not allowed to return to their homes to retrieve their vehicles.

They’re being told by transportation their cars can't be shipped to them and they're not being allowed to take time off to go get them. She writes, this causes an undo hardship due to the mitigating circumstances of COVID. Can an exception to policy be put in place I'm pretty sure this situation is occurring all over. Thank you.

SEAC COLON-LOPEZ: So, yes and thank you Chandra for the question. And this is just yet another concern that has created some concern by our members on the restriction of movement. But again going back to the risk mitigation because we need to maintain the lethality of the services and we need to conduct training.

So the decision was made to go ahead and keep the healthy population that entered training, to go ahead and travel together in order to mitigate the risks of getting infected. Now the follow-on to that is that the restrictions ease, I can almost guarantee that those soldiers will be able to get back to their homes and get their vehicles.

But just like we're preventing people from transporting themselves or their families across certain borders – this is no different. And at the end of the day we need to make sure that we continue with the throughput of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, and Coast Guardsman to be to go ahead and be able to effect the defense of the nation.

But the commanders in the field are making extremely difficult decisions, to ensure that they're able to maintain the readiness of their forces. But what we we’ll do our best is to make sure that those soldiers get their property in due time.

STAFF: Mr. Chairman, Mr. Secretary, this next question is for the both of you. Many other members wrote us about hardships even the difficulty of doing their jobs. Lisa Burnham of Austin, Texas asks, my husband has been quarantined twice due to being contract traced in Afghanistan. He tested negative three times. That means he will spend more than a month of his deployment not doing his job.

How is this policy sustainable, she asks?

SEC. ESPER: Those are some of the things we're looking at right now. What we need to do is make sure we have a higher availability rate, but we do so prudently and with the advice of our medical experts. You know, the chain of command, General Milley, I, the commanders, the service chiefs met just a couple weeks ago with – spent an hour, hour and a half with Doctors Fauci and Birx talking about these issues.

So what we're looking at now is how can we adjust our policies and practices because one of the things we've learned over the past few months is that we have a generally younger healthier, fitter, force that is able to withstand the coronavirus. If anything, they become asymptomatic carriers, which presents its own challenges.

But for the most part, our people are generally being not affected, affected mildly. That's why if you look at our numbers, again our of the active duty force – you know, one is too many, but we've only lost one service member, active duty service member out of a million plus because of the demographics of our population.

Because of all measures we put in place. Because of the preventive actions we've taken. So what we're looking at now are how do we adapt our practices and procedures based on our further understanding of the virus and the impact it has on various populations. And so one of the things that we was recommended by Doctors Fauci and Birx is for us to consider reducing our quarantine times, for example from 14 to 10 days. Because the risk level is not that much higher between those two timelines for our population, military population.

So that's one of the things we're looking at in terms of adjusting the timelines and now that we have increased testing availability, making sure we're doing that but testing isn't a be-all end-all. There are a number of other things that we're looking at to make sure we do that.

Like the person who wrote in, we want to make sure that we aren't keeping our deployed service members cooped up in quarantine all the time. We want them to be out there doing their job, exercising their skills, but priority number one still comes back to protecting the force, protecting the individual.

GEN. MILLEY: And I would say, Lisa, that first, it's good that your husband tested negative three times. And yes, there was a sacrifice there in terms of his one month of his deployment has been wrapped up in quarantine and testing and so on. But again go back to the purpose, the purpose is to protect the force, because none of us are any good if we're laid up and sick or really, really badly ill or on a ventilator or worse, if we pass away.

So we can't do our job if we're in those conditions. So these are necessary protective measures that we're doing throughout the force. We're learning as we go. As the Secretary said we started out with possible quarantines of 21 days and now it went down to 14 days. And we're looking very seriously at reducing it again to 10 days. We know the incubation period for this particular virus on average is something like 5.6 days - somewhere in the 5 to 6 days is the normal incubation period.

So if you isolate for 10, then you’re going to get 98-99 percent probability perhaps that if the person tests negative then they don't have it. So it comes down to a function of risk and protect the force. Again how long -- she said, is it sustainable? That depends.

We don't know. How long this will last with any degree of certainty. We are very confident that a vaccine will be online sometime beginning in the fall.

And the goal is to have upward of 300 million doses by the beginning of January. If that happens, and there's very high confidence levels it will happen - then we will be able to immunize the military and immunize the population at large. And then we will see a very very rapid decrease in this disease throughout the country.

And then I think we'll get back to more normal conditions. So we’ll see. But for right now – we are sustaining these levels of protection in order to protect the force and protect family members, and we'll continue to do that.

STAFF: I turn to the SEAC for this follow up question; along those lines, we've had several anonymous comments submitted about their struggles during this period.

Quote - 'It's been overwhelming being at home for so long by myself' and others said 'I love my children, my spouse, but having my spouse deployed and me working full time at my job while doing full time online schooling and parenting has been incredibly overwhelming.'

What's your advice for these members of our military family?

SEAC COLON-LOPEZ: First of all for those who are listening on the anonymous comments, that taking care of our family and service members is our top priority.

But we'll encourage you to use the resources at-hand, and the Department of Defense has numerous resources to help you with many issues. From chaplains, to medical professionals, to mental health, Military One Source, service-specific family readiness programs are all available for you.

All we need to do is either pick up the phone or talk to somebody to go ahead and get the help we need. And that is the key part and the best that I can give you. Stay in close communication with the people that can get you help. Alright.

Do not just stay silent out of pride just because you think you're too strong. These are hard times - not just for the Department of Defense but for the nation writ large. So please, utilize the mechanisms that we have in place.

SEC. ESPER: I'd just like to foot-stomp what the SEAC said. We're seeing this now. It's in the literature. It's being reported upon.

All of us are exercising in good physical distancing, social distancing, but that means that you can't let you social networks fail. In fact, this is a time to re-energize your social networks.

And that means reaching out to people, reaching out to friends - particularly those in a tough situation as you mentioned - or others who are maybe single individuals, who don't have a network within the home to help them out.

So I think this is the time to double down and re-energize your social networks. Stay in touch whether it's text, or phone, or even having family come over and visit. I have sons who come over and we have to sit on the back porch, I don’t allow them in the house. And we talk and catch up at a physically distanced - socially distanced, with face masks. But you got to work – a little bit harder these days to keep those social networks and contacts up. As the SEAC said we certainly have a degree of resources on base whether it's the mental health providers we have. And there's also the chain of command.

The chain of command has a responsibility here from the officer and certainly from the NCOs to stay in touch with their soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines and make sure they don't get lost in the shuffle. To make sure that they remain engaged. That's very important these days as we do physical and social distancing is to keep those networks alive and well.

STAFF: Sir, this next question is for you. Mandy Ryan Hudson asks - What avenues do service members have to appeal a denial to an exception to policy? Hardships are being ignored, earnest monies, renters, deposits, and more are putting families into a real bind. 

SEC. ESPER: Well, first all reapply. The chain of command, there's no limit on reapplying exception to policy. Circumstances change - maybe your own or maybe you know as we understand the virus and we understand the effects on the community, it may give the commander a different perspective, if you will, but I'm confident that all commanders care, they're doing the right thing. We've opened up three categories, as I recall, of waiver approval under which folks may qualified.

Many people have qualified under those waivers and are conducting moves and what not. I would encourage her to reapply. In her case, if she wants, feel free to send us another email back with details of your case, and I'll make sure personally that it gets to the appropriate service chief and at least we give it a second look up here as well to make that all the right eyeballs are looking at your case. And you have at least some degree of confidence that folks are giving your case a fair hearing.

STAFF: Mandy, you can instant message us on Facebook to send us your email. The next question is for the chairman. The last question of the day is one that was submitted several times. More than 60,000 service members have deployed in response to COVID-19, many at great personal risk. Is there discussion of hazardous duty pay or other recognition for those members? 

GEN MILLEY: There is. There’s very active discussion and the SEAC and all of the senior enlisted to the each of the services they're working in a working group to determine what the rules are going to be on all of that.

They're working OSD P&R which is the personnel and readiness secretary. And once we come up with a policy letter, which I would expect we'll probably have that through the various development processes here in the Pentagon in the next 30 days.

And I expect that we'll put out some guidance that'll be definitive under the secretary's signature for those - about hazardous duty pay, about awards, about unit awards, individual awards, etcetera - all of that kind of stuff is absolutely under consideration. And we will recognize those appropriately in due course. But I will expect some guidance to come out here shortly.

STAFF: As we draw to the conclusion to today's town hall, we have time for closing remarks. I’ll turn it over to the SEAC.

SEAC COLON-LOPEZ: No, again thanks for everyone tuning in and for the questions that have been brought forward. Again, you are a key factor in how we make decisions here at the Pentagon for the Department of Defense.

But I would like to close by reminding everyone that the nation is feeling the pain on this pandemic plainly put, not just the department. One thing I would like to remind everyone serving in the Department of Defense is that we're still employed, we have health care, and we have engaged leadership to get after the issues.

That is not the same for the civilian population of the United States of America. So, the DoD is taking every step possible to make sure that we have you focused. To make sure that we have the most lethal force in the world.

So please keep the feedback coming so that we can continue to work for you. And at the end of the day, always remember that we have the watch - nobody else does. So remain flexible and remain adaptable and thank you for everything that you're doing.

STAFF: Mr. Chairman?

GEN. MILLEY: I would just leave with two thoughts. One is protect the force - continue to protect yourselves and your families because we can't protect the American people if we ourselves are not healthy.

So continue to focus on that. And secondly is our mission. The world is a big world. There's a lot of things out there that are not necessarily in the United States’ interests that happen every single day, from terrorists to Russia to China to Iran and North Korea and all kinds of other threats and challenges that are out there.

And we have to operate within a COVID-19 environment. We are doing that. We are doing that effectively right now, so keep your eye on the ball. Stay -- stay attuned to readiness. Just keep your operational skills up to speed, and then protect yourselves and – and protect your family, and we'll be in good shape.

STAFF: Mr. Secretary, I leave it to you to close us out today.

SEC. ESPER: Sure, I'll just, you know, reiterate up front again the priorities. Number one is, again, priority number one - take care of our service members, our DoD civilians, and their families. And I appreciate what everyone’s been doing on that front to follow the guidance, to comply with the memorandums we've sent out, the policy that we've stated. And I really appreciate everybody's hard work and sacrifice of doing that. I would ask you again to take care of one another during these -- these days. It's challenging, but take care of one another, watch out for one another, and that's, of course, a responsibility. It's incumbent upon the chain of command to do so.

And then secondly, keep in mind priority number two, is we have to maintain our national security mission capabilities. The country has been focused inward for the last few months. It's our job to look not only inward and support the whole-of-government effort, which is priority number three, but also, we're the ones standing on the walls. We're watching outward. We're remaining vigilant because the world remains a dangerous place and folks out there are testing us. And so it's our duty to make sure we keep the -- the nation well protected that our deployed and deploying forces are taken care of and ready to do their job.

And so that's why I just am deeply appreciative of everybody's service and I'm very proud of -- of what we as a military force are doing. And so I just want to thank everybody very much, again, for your service, for your sacrifice. And we will get through this, and we will get through stronger than ever before, so thank you.

STAFF: This concludes today's town hall. Thank you for tuning in and please keep your questions coming. As you can see, we have leadership willing to answer them. Thank you.