It was mid-March. The coronavirus pandemic was just beginning to take over American life, and the sailor was scared.
Working at one of the Navy’s brigs, the sailor had been told of a plan by higher-ups that would force prison guards to move inside the wire and live in the jail.
Such a contingency would seek to prevent COVID-19 from infecting the inmate population.
“Active Duty staff members are being ordered to sleep in jail cells, shower, and eat and live inside the prison,” the sailor wrote to the Defense Department’s Inspector General on March 18. “They are being pulled away from their families to live in these conditions and there is no other prison doing such a drastic thing.”
The command was ordering the sailors to go home and pack immediately, according to the complaint submitted to the Pentagon watchdog.
“We need someone … to at least hear us as we have tried to up channel this through our Chain of Command,” the sailor wrote.
In the end, Navy prison guards were not forced to live among the inmates.
“Our Brig staffs did not live inside the brig,” Navy Personnel Command spokesman Lt. Cmdr. William Knight told Military Times.
He declined to provide specifics regarding brig policies during the pandemic, but suggested in an email that such plans had been a work in progress.
“March 18 was very early in the COVID-19 response effort and there were many potential plans discussed,” he said.
That prison guard’s cry for help was one of many to the IG contained in hundreds of pages of coronavirus-related complaints by servicemembers, dependents and civilian employees from February to April, at the chaotic onset of the pandemic in America.
Obtained by Military Times in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the complaints reflect the fear and uncertainty rippling through society back then, before this all became the new normal.
Some complaints are simple grievances.
One civilian employee at a Florida Navy base alerted the IG in March that he was unable to access base gyms.
“If I have to be at work I should have access!” the complainant wrote.
But other complaints reflect people’s fears that commanders weren’t taking the virus seriously or were unwilling to allow reduced manning, distancing or the telework options that have now become standard operating procedure in some units.
The veracity of these complaints, and whether they were substantiated or determined to be nothing more than viral scuttlebutt, remains unclear.
DoD IG spokeswoman Dwrena Allen declined to comment on the complaints.
“I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigations that we have not previously issued a public statement for,” she said in an email.
The names of the complainants, as well as the alleged wrongdoers, their commands and other details, are largely redacted.
The IG reported receiving nearly 300 tips and opening more than 200 complaints as of May 11, with more than half of the complaints for alleged violations of social distancing policies.
Whether the complaints were tied to any major outbreaks in the military ranks also remains unclear.
Citing “operational security,” the Pentagon stopped disclosing local unit outbreaks this spring.
As of Sept. 21, some 43,431 military members, 9,647 civilian employees and 5,725 dependents had tested positive for the virus, according to a Pentagon tally.
Business as usual
Several complaints accuse unit commanders of ignoring, downplaying or even mocking the threat posed by COVID-19 this spring, while others allege that units were trying to carry on with business as usual.
“Leadership in the squadron are ignoring health and safety rules related to COVID-19, making light of the situation by mocking individuals practicing social distancing and not making individuals who have been tested follow quarantine rules,” a March 20 complaint against an Air Force squadron’s leadership states. “Additionally, they are not making it possible or providing materials for working members to clean and sanitize work areas. There are confirmed cases on the base.”
A March 16 complaint accused a commander of not moving a unit to mission essential-only travel because “we are too important to shut down,” the complaint states.
“We are a travel heavy organization and there are several potential cases identified on site already,” the whistle-blower wrote.
On March 5, someone sent in a complaint fearing that a recent military conference included attendees from Italy, Japan and South Korea, and could become a so-called “super spreader” event.
“Several people who attended became sick during the conference,” the complaint states.
It asks the IG to investigate “why the conference went forward and people from all over the globe traveled after it was known the virus was spreading beyond China.”
“It appears no effort was made to protect the public,” the tipster wrote.
A March 17 complaint accused a commander of “knowing of an exposure of COVID-19 and not taking actions recommended to contain or reduce risk of others becoming infected,” a move that put “soldiers and families at risk of infection and exposure.”
Eight days later, another complaint accused a leader of forcing more than 30 subordinates into a crowded conference room, “against the guidance of the battalion physician.”
A soldier wrote the IG on March 18, alleging that his unit was being forced to come to work, even as some awaited coronavirus test results.
“Do formations,” the soldier wrote. “People coughing everywhere and on everything.”
The following day, another complaint came in, accusing commanders of refusing to put soldiers on split shifts because it would “disrupt workflow.”
“We have been told the virus isn’t that bad,” the complaint states. “Why are they allowed to do this and continue to jeopardize our health, and our families’ health?”
Another unit leader was accused of forcing his company to work together in large groups “to produce more workflow,” a March 20 complaint alleges.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous that everyone above him is allowing this,” the tipster wrote.
One service member alleged in a March 23 complaint that his commander didn’t care about the unit’s safety and was posting about the pandemic on Facebook.
That leader “stated that it’s not a big deal that 3-5% of the population dies,” the complaint states.
“That lets everyone under his command know that he cares nothing about them,” the service member wrote.
A contractor filed a complaint on March 19, alleging that leaders weren’t creating alternate work schedules that would allow for physical distancing.
The complainant asked the IG to provide local leaders with “guidance on using common sense instead of sticking to the words of a contract in this trying time.”
Looking for answers
Uncertainty about the virus and how it spread during those early days was a recurring theme in the IG complaints.
A Defense Department civilian filed a complaint on March 16, worrying about a coworker returning from a spring break trip to Florida.
The command had not answered employee questions about whether the spring breaker would be screened.
“We cannot Telework, we are ‘Mission Essential’ and the only ones left in the building,” the complaint states. “This could be a serious safety issue, and if the vacationer did return from FLA with COVID-19, he could knock out the … office for weeks.”
A complaint submitted the same day accused a unit leader of holding a meeting and telling attendees she had been in contact with someone who had recently traveled from Italy.
One meeting attendee asked the commander why they were there, and she replied, “I am not going to live in fear.”
“I couldn’t believe that she came into a meeting with us with the potential of having been exposed to the virus,” the complainant wrote.
Several complaints came in against the Marine Corps for not relaxing grooming standards.
“They have to obtain weekly haircuts which puts them in direct contact with a barber that potentially has COVID-19,” a March 24 complaint states. “Barbers may be asymptomatic and are in a very close proximity to countless Marines.”
“Does the appearance of a Marine hold more value than myriad lives?” the person asked.
In regard to barber shops staying open, the Corps issued a statement this spring saying it trusts “leaders to make those calls, and we’ve given them the latitude to waive requirements where it’s not practical to meet restrictions.”
“Because [COVID], like other pandemics, is different area to area, region to region, HQMC [Headquarters Marine Corps] has not said all grooming standards are relaxed for a given period of time,” the Communication Directorate previously said in an emailed statement to Marine Corps Times.
A March 13 complaint accused a command of “restricting tests of COVID to avoid positive numbers.”
The complainant asked the IG to “raise the alarm to SECDEF that field commanders are not testing members who are isolated — to avoid positive results on purpose.”
Working from home
Other IG complaints involve allegations that commanders were reluctant or unwilling to allow subordinates to work from home.
A March 16 complaint alleges that a commander told their subordinate “to make sure that employees with small children do not telework during the virus because they won’t be able to get their work completed.”
Another complaint that same day accused the boss of not allowing employees to work from home either, including those deemed to be most vulnerable to the virus.
“Complainant advises there are several personnel including complainant who have childcare concerns due to school closures,” a summary of the complaint states.
A civilian employee accused a boss on March 21 of forcing non-essential employees to work in the office and alternate work-from-home days.
“We are basically being made to potentially go into contaminated spaces and take it back to our family,” the complaint states. “All the risk is to push paperwork.”
A March 20 complaint alleges a commander of forcing “everyone to muster everyday and bring their children to work.”
“Even if they have no classes to teach,” the complaint states. “Then hold meetings exceeding the 10-person rule.”
“Risking it all”
Several complaints centered on the military’s various boot camps and training pipelines.
A service member contacted the IG on March 20, asking why staff at a recruiting command were still being forced to come into the office.
“There is no reason why staff personnel of an organization not directly engaged in combat operations or directly supporting should be placed in unnecessary risk not only to their personal health and safety but to their loved ones who are all wondering why their husband or wife is possibly bringing home a highly infectious virus every time they walk through the door,” they wrote.
“Here we are risking it all just to meet the recruiting mission,” the complaint continued. “This would not be happening unless the entire chain of command was aware and facilitated this type of tone-deaf leadership.”
One complaint accused the nation’s network of military entrance processing stations, or MEPS, of “continuing as usual despite the current crisis.”
“At each MEPS, upwards of 100 applicants each day are crammed into small rooms with no masks,” the complaint states.
Other complaints involved units continuing their training “at full speed” or boot camps full of troops “running around like nothing’s going on.”
A March 16 complaint accused the leadership at a military boot camp of “allowing new recruits from all over the country to travel to (the base) and begin training.”
“This is gross negligence on the behalf of the command and puts all Recruits, Active Duty, Civilians and Dependent Families on the installation at risk by allowing travel outside of the currently imposed restrictions,” the complaint alleges.
The earliest complaint in IG records is dated Feb. 14, roughly a month before the virus hit home for most Americans.
The service member who filed the complaint alleged that someone had been in an online chatroom, “sharing classified and top-secret information” about a plan to install martial law in response to the outbreak.
The alleged wrongdoer had claimed COVID-19 “was not a real virus but a means to stage a coup on President Trump,” the tipster wrote, adding that they wanted the alleged wrongdoer investigated for “treason and sedition.”
How has your unit leadership handled COVID-19? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at email@example.com.