SASEBO, Japan - Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) 7 completed its third COVID-free deployment in April, following the arrival of the Whidbey Island-class dock landing ship, USS Ashland (LSD 48), to Fleet Activities Sasebo, May 4.
In early 2020 as the world started to learn of a potentially contagious new illness now known as COVID-19, the ships of the USS America (LHA 6) strike group with embarked 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), operating under the command of ESG 7, were deployed at sea conducting operations in the Indo-Pacific region. Since then, the strike group Sailors and Marines, benefitting from the expertise of an infectious disease doctor, have followed strict guidelines and remained COVID-free throughout three deployments, with no active COVID-19 cases at sea.
“The process was incredibly robust, but we knew it was necessary to ensure the safety of our crew members while at sea and maintain mission readiness,” said Cmdr. Drake Tilley, Fleet Surgical Team 7, officer in charge. “As an infectious disease doctor by trade, I made it my purpose to educate and inform service members across the ranks on the best possible course of action to ensure our ships stayed safe prior to and while underway.”
Over the past 18 months and three deployments, the ships of ESG 7 conducted routine personnel and cargo transfers, replenishments at sea, more than 100 routine medical transfers, 10 bilateral engagements, and embarked over 6,600 Marines of the 31st MEU.
Remaining mission-ready during the first deployment allowed America-class amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6), flagship of the ESG, to conduct tasking directed by Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet alongside Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52), Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52), and Royal Australian Navy Anzac-class frigate HMAS Parramatta (FFG 154) in the South China Sea. While there, America and embarked Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, with F-35B fighter aircraft, conducted operations in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific, alongside allies and partners during USS America’s first patrol in the 7th Fleet area of operations.
“Using U.S. Pacific Fleet policies and the most up-to-date information from medical literature, we were able to structure high-yield policies that worked to keep our service members safe at sea,” said Tilley. “Our success stemmed from engaging the policies set in motion by my predecessor Capt. Justin Green, and our close coordination with local partners to include base commanders, our U.S. Marine Corps counterparts and other participating command to have a unified effort in the protection of the fleet.”
Leadership at all levels were involved with enforcing healthy habits including additional cleaning, frequent hand washing, and other COVID-19 mitigation measures such as Sailors and Marines wearing appropriate protective equipment. Additionally, subject matter experts from a Naval Environmental and Preventative Medical Unit (NEPMU) embarked the America Strike Group, providing additional medical expertise.
NEPMU 5, forward-deployed from San Diego, provided specialized support through crew education on preventative measures and equipped the medical teams with necessary materials on how to respond if a crew member tested positive for COVID-19. ESG 7 also had some of the Navy’s first bio-fires testing kits, allowing experts to quickly test for the presence of the Novel Coronavirus on board afloat units.
While staying safe at sea was important to mission readiness, it was not without sacrifices. Many of the common resources Sailors use while underway to reset and build resiliency, such as group fitness, larger social gatherings, and foreign port visits, have been curtailed during the pandemic.
“The Sailors and Marines of ESG 7 understand their importance in maintaining regional stability and security and they showed incredible discipline and integrity in following the guidance put forth with commitment to keep themselves and their crewmembers safe,” said Rear Adm. Fred Kacher, commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 7. “These three COVID-free deployments speak to the power of the ‘Team of Teams’ that make up the America Strike Group. While our extraordinary Sailors and Marines made these deployments a success, we were very fortunate to receive strong support from Commander, 7th Fleet and the 7th Fleet Surgeon in what was a total team win extending from my boss, Vice Adm. William Merz, to our youngest corpsman.”
In addition to remaining free of the virus, two ESG 7 ships were offered COVID vaccines on their most recent deployments prior to returning to homeport, while the other ships were offered initial vaccinations within weeks following their return. This effort required coordination between 18 subordinate units and four different medical treatment facilities, enabling nearly 4,000 Sailors and Marines to receive the vaccine, marking another huge advancement in the strike group’s effort to defeat COVID-19.
“While I owe thanks to many, many leaders, Doc Tilley remained our most trusted and valuable advisor in our fight,” said Kacher. “His advice and technical expertise, the leadership of our commanding officers, and the discipline of our Sailors and Marines all translated into integrated American naval power that was always ready.”
ESG 7 is forward-deployed in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations to enhance interoperability with allies and partners and serve as a ready force to defend peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.