WASHINGTON -- The first priority for senior Pentagon leaders in the COVID-19 pandemic is taking care of service members and Defense Department civilians and their families, a top Pentagon advisor said.
"This is not the first challenge we have faced, and this is not the first war that we have fought — and this is a fight," Senior Enlisted Advisor (SEAC) to the Chairman Ramon "CZ" Colón-López told Pentagon reporters today. "So, we're asking our people still to continue to take actions to protect themselves and those around them by employing the protective measures outlined by the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention]."
But he said military life is a bit different from life in the civilian world. The mission of the military services is to deter enemies and, if deterrence fails, to fight the nation's wars. This requires training to ensure readiness. Soldiers preparing for battle may not be able to employ social distancing. Airmen in a cockpit sit shoulder-to-shoulder. Sailors aboard a submarine operate in a very small space.
Certain missions must be performed, and service members will do them, the military's top enlisted service member said, but commanders are going to have to decide which missions are essential and which can be put off. "That is up to the chain of command to go ahead and make that risk assessment," he said.
Colón-López is in constant contact with his service and combatant command counterparts. He noted that the military has planned for contagious disease infections and has carried out those plans in training exercises in the past. "Each combatant command is providing an assessment on where they see the force and their effectiveness," he said.
The SEAC is also reaching out to the enlisted force to hear their concerns. He is planning a Facebook Live event soon to hear from them, and he will bring their concerns to Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "The one thing that I can do from this position … is just to make sure that [enlisted personnel] know they have a voice, that they have support," he said.
The role of noncommissioned officers, regardless of the situation, is to take the pulse of service members, he said. "They're the ones closest to the people executing the mission in the field," Colón-López said. "They're the ones that provide the commanders with the necessary information to make sure that those troops are well-equipped, taken care of, and mission-ready."
In the current situation, he said, NCOs must ensure their personnel are following the CDC guidelines and relay facts to the troops.
Colón-López said he and the service and combatant command senior enlisted leaders start that chain, and they are being brutally honest with troops. "We're being very transparent with them, because we don't have any time to waste," he said, "and our well-armed and knowledgeable NCOs will be the calm in the eye of the storm on any formation."