WASHINGTON -- Some practices adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic have benefitted the troops and may be continued after the pandemic abates, Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper said.
During a visit yesterday to Marine Corp Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, Esper said at a virtual Pentagon town hall meeting today, he learned that measures such as wearing face masks and social distancing had prevented COVID-19 cases and other respiratory tract illnesses, as well — leading to a decrease in sick call numbers overall.
That resulted in a higher number of recruits being available for training, so many of these measures will likely continue even after the COVID-19 crisis has passed. ''Some good will come of this,'' he said.
Esper was joined by Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramón ''CZ'' Colón-López at the town hall meeting. They answered questions about COVID-19 from service members, Defense Department civilians and family members around the globe.
''We're not going to get back to a normal the way it was,'' the secretary said. ''It will be a new normal. Lessons learned that we adopt from this will be 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.''
Milley said many valuable lessons are being learned. For example, virtual and simulation training is being made more available, and the training has been demonstrated to be as effective in many cases as live training.
Another lesson learned, he said, is how to overcome challenges working in close quarters, such as in tanks, submarines or aircraft. To meet the challenge, the services have quarantined personnel before they are put together in close quarters; once together, they take additional precautionary measures.
Colón-López said many of the lessons learned come from feedback on things that are working and things that aren't. He encouraged everyone to keep feedback and comments coming through the chain of command.
The SEAC also noted that an important lesson learned is that anyone experiencing depression or other mental health issues should seek help. The military, he said, has a legion of chaplains and mental health providers who are ready to assist.
''Seek help. Do not just stay silent out of pride just because you're too strong. These are hard times. Not just for the Department of Defense but for the nation,'' Colón-López said.
Esper said it's especially important to reach out to friends, particularly those in tough situations. He added that those in the chain of command should be looking out for their people, and he said he's confident that's being done. ''This is a time to double-down and re-energize your social networks,'' he said.
''We all want to get back to normal,'' he continued. ''We all face these unique situations, and we're all anxious to get on with things as best we can, as well, but it's all about protecting the force, our people.''
Esper noted that the department is transitioning to a conditions-based, phased approach to personnel, movement and travel. Guidance that was published this week will lessen the burden on DOD personnel and their families while ensuring continued operations in a safe manner, he said.
The department is providing commanders with additional guidance as they look to change health condition levels at installations, he said. ''These measures will allow commanders to make risk-based decisions as they begin to return to normal operations in-line with local missions, [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance, and in consultation with their medical leadership. We are not going to open up the Pentagon or other installations unless we are confident that it is safe place to work. That is our commitment to the force. We will get through this and we will get through this stronger than ever before.''
Milley offered a final piece of advice: ''Keep your eye on the mission, continue to take care of yourselves. Continue to take care of your families.''