It started on Monday, March 16, with one chief on board the littoral combat ship Coronado feeling sick and being sent home for a few days.
Ten days later, nine Coronado sailors had tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 30 crew members are having their movements restricted — about half the crew of the small warship currently in port in San Diego.
The ship’s planned underway periods have been postponed until the outbreak is under control, according to two sources familiar with the situation.
“It was a total shit-show,” said a sailor familiar with the outbreak on Coronado. “Everybody started getting sick. I felt like the right thing to do was get everybody off the ship, test everybody whether they were sick or not. Then put the people who were fine on a barge next to the ship, bring on the people in HAZMAT suits and have the ship cleaned professionally.”
Instead, the sailors were provided buckets and bleach and told to wipe down the ship.
“It was 100 percent botched: The whole thing,” the sailor said. “The Navy always says its number one asset is its people? Not on Coronado.”
The outbreak on the Coronado is just one of perhaps dozens of small and large unit-level outbreaks, the sum total of which could herald the beginning of a readiness crisis across the U.S. military. The rate of infection among the military is outpacing the U.S. civilian population. And with experts saying the virus could be with us for more than a year until a vaccine can be developed and deployed, the military is gearing up for a long war the likes of which it hasn’t dealt with since at least the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.
The Navy has been hit especially hard. On Thursday, the Navy announced that it was halting the mission of a deployed aircraft carrier, Theodore Roosevelt, after 25 sailors onboard tested positive for the virus, according to a Navy official who spoke on background. That number has since risen to nearly 40 sailors.
On Friday, Fox News reported that the fleet’s only forward-deployed carrier in the Pacific, the carrier Ronald Reagan, had two cases of Coronavirus, raising the possibility that COVID-19 could sideline both U.S. aircraft carriers in the Asia Pacific at a time of heightened tensions with China.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly acknowledged the Navy is facing a proportionally larger outbreak than the other services. As of Sunday, 144 sailors have tested positive for the coronavius, with 7 requiring hospitalization.
“I think we are trending higher,” Modley told reporters at the Pentagon. He said he could not cite any specific reason for that.
On Monday the total number of service members with confirmed cases of COVID-19 had nearly doubled to 569, defense officials said, including 26 hospitalizations.
The Navy, in an effort to supplement a looming manpower shortfall caused by the virus, has approved enlistment extensions for current sailors nearing a separation date and also invited recently separated veteran to reenter the service.
As the bad news has stacked up for the Navy and the military at large, service members from across the military say they’ve seen little from their commands that lead them to believe that Defense Department is taking the virus seriously.
Service members and spouses from across the force have told Military Times the military leadership has seemed blindsided and unsure in the face of the largest public health crisis in generations. While the commander in chief last week told Americans not to gather in groups of more than 10, military training commands and their service members continued to be packed into classrooms and to march in close formations.
On ships, where sailors sleep and work together in confined quarters, the virus is spreading like wildfire. The Marine Corps still has barber shops and gyms open, despite localities across the country ordering them shut. And in the Army, initial measures such has canceling PT and, for some units, canceling field exercises has reduced the potential exposure and the number of duty days for soldiers.
But an Army physician told Army Times that the half-measures weren’t working, and by the end of last week, an internal Army document noted that “Mitigation measures taken by the Army to blunt the spread of COVID-19 have proven insufficient."
Many of the concerns raised by service members seem to spring from the military’s delegation of authority to lower echelons to make decisions for their units, an order that comes directly from the Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who told reporters on March 24 that commanders and senior enlisted would have say over what measures get put in place.
“At the end of the day, though, given all the different scenarios and factors that each one of you and us face, I trust upon our commanders and our senior enlisted personnel to do the right thing particular to your unit, to your situation, to your mission," Esper said, adding that "it’s up to the commanders and senior NCOs to make the right calls relevant to their situation to ensure that we protect our people while at the same time maintaining mission readiness.”
But that has seemingly led to a hodgepodge of responses throughout the military and a good deal of confusion in the ranks.
Among the biggest fears service members have — one that was expressed in dozens of letters received by Military Times during the past week — is going home to their families after being around unsafe practices all day.
“It is a nightmare,” said one sailor attached to Naval Air Technical Training Center in Pensacola, Florida. “My wife is having anxiety attacks because she doesn’t know what I’m bringing home – we’ve got kids. They need to all-stop. Shut it down. It’s a training command, man. They’re going to wait for someone to get sick or die before they realize something has to be done.”
The leadership at the command is "not really telling us anything,” said the Pensacola sailor. “It’s almost like we’re in communist China because they’re acting like there is nothing wrong.”
At his command in Florida, there are 150 to 250 sailors who are coming from Navy Boot Camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, who have flown on aircraft and traveled through airports. Those students are being preliminary screened by people asking if they feel sick, but are then packed into rooms to fill out paperwork.
“We’re trying to spread them out as much as possible, but the seats are maybe two feet apart and we’re supposed to be maintaining six feet,” the sailor said.
From there, those students go to classrooms that fit 25 to 28 sailors and it’s impossible to maintain the six feet that the Centers for Disease Control recommends, the sailor said.
“There is no way to logistically mandate social distancing,” the sailor continued. “You’ve got big desks with computers that are where they are and they don’t move. You’ve got students marching in formation. PT has stopped because a [message] that came out. It’s literally like the chain of command is purposely keeping people in the dark.”
In some cases, the military’s top leaders have taken some major steps to prevent the spread of the virus. On Wednesday night, after most of the nation was locked down by city and state authorities, the Pentagon announced the suspension of all domestic travel, deployments, exercises for the entire force.
Service members at some commands told Military Times that the response has been exceptional, and local conditions are largely dependent on the decisions made by individual commanding officers.
One sailor based at a fighter squadron in Lemoore, California, said his commanding officer has taken extraordinary steps to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“My VFA squadron in Lemoore CA is really doing a fantastic job,” the sailor wrote in an email. “We are working one shift with blue and gold teams, which is further broken down with specific people going to work while others on the team stay home. Anyone with children have priority to stay home. We have a phone-in daily muster, with the watchbill being put out by section leaders.”
Other squadrons have not taken such steps, the sailor said, adding “I'm so thankful that my current skipper sees the need to consolidate.”
The military is taking steps to protect its personnel. In response to a query on the outbreak on the LCS Coronado, Commander Naval Surface Force Pacific spokesman Cmdr. Patrick Evans detailed the measures put in place to try and stop the virus.
“Although ships may have limited personnel who have tested positive for COVID, all personnel who were in close contact with the positive cases shall be placed in Restriction of Movement (ROM) status and will remain away from the ship for 14 days in order to protect the crew and prevent the spread of the virus,” Evans said.
SURFPAC, in coordination with U.S. Pacific Fleet, has been changing ship schedules to stop ships with outbreaks from getting underway if its avoidable, Evans said.
“I can tell you that out of an abundance of caution, to protect the health of our personnel, minimize the spread of COVID-19 and posture our forces effectively, Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet has adjusted planned underways of ships,” the statement reads.
“As we combat COVID-19, we are reviewing every operation, exercise, and training event to ensure it is mission essential for warfighting readiness while considering the risk to mission and risk to force. As we balance the risk to force with mission requirements, the Navy will not put commanding officers or their crews in situations of undue, unnecessary risk.”
‘Get them off the ship’
While there are things to criticize about how the military has approached the COVID-19 crisis, the military is in a tough predicament, said Dr. Dean Winslow, a specialist in infectious diseases with Stanford University and retired Air National Guard flight surgeon who deployed six times in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I feel sorry for the military, especially in the training realm because you can’t reasonably expect the military to just stop putting service members through the pipeline for six months,” Winslow said.
Still, "as much as possible, individual units and commanders need to try and follow their state and local health authority guidelines and the [Centers for Disease Control] guidelines on social distancing and other things that are more elective,” he said.
But the approach taken by Esper and his subordinates, allowing line commanders to make decisions applicable to their units alone, is not advisable, Winslow said.
“Wearing a uniform does not protect you from this public health emergency,” he said. “The military does have excellent epidemiologists on staff. And as someone who has served as a commander, I didn’t like being micromanaged. But this is a situation that’s unprecedented, so it really isn’t the place to allow a line commander to make medical and public health decisions.”
Part of what has created an uneven response across the military has been the nature of the virus its facing: One that is significantly more deadly and dangerous that previous outbreaks, said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and senior fellow at The Hudson Institute.
“The plan is normally if you get someone with a communicable disease, you do the normal things we have been doing: You do social distancing, you quarantine them, and you hope that it hasn't made its way through the crew,” he said. “This particular disease has a combination of long life, communicability and hazard: that combination is different from what we've encountered in every previous major outbreak.”
The H1N1 outbreak in 2009 that killed more than 12,000 Americans tore its way through the military but didn’t have the kind of serious impact on readiness that COVID-19 is already having, Clark said.
"So, with H1N1, that illness largely wasn’t fatal,” Clark said, referring to the so-called “swine flu” that struck in 2009.
“It made you sick, you weren’t able to do your job, but ships were able to stay operational because you just dealt with the fact that lots of people were going to get sick. We adjusted the watch bill to accommodate those who were ill and we pushed through.
“With this illness, you can’t just go to your rack and tough it out,” he continued. “You could very easily get very sick and need major medical attention that is only available off the ship. That’s the big difference. The plans we had in place were designed for: If everyone got sick it was with something relatively mild and you worked through it.
"In this case, people get sick and you’re not sure how bad it’s going to get. You don’t want to just let it run its course through the crew, you want to get them off the ship.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.