An Unhealthy Military Is Struggling to Fight COVID-19

Even as it’s called upon to aid the coronavirus response across the country, the military is struggling to contain the disease among its own personnel.

A black and white picture of soldiers running.
Historical / Getty

An outbreak on an aircraft carrier. Infections in basic training. Office-bound contractors unable to work from home. The coronavirus has hit the military-industrial complex, and this is not an enemy it knows how to fight.

The U.S. armed forces and their supporting industries, with people wedged into shared barracks or in 96-person ship berths sleeping inches away from one another, are especially vulnerable to the spread of the virus. The military is also the world’s largest employer, with more than 3 million on the Defense Department payroll alone—not even counting legions of contractors that assist the entire enterprise.

The virus now threatens to be deadlier to U.S. citizens than any of America’s recent armed conflicts, and take many multiples the number of lives lost in the 9/11 attacks. And the institution that seeks to protect the United States from threats cannot stop the single biggest one the U.S. has faced in a generation. Meanwhile, even as the military is called upon to help with the domestic response, the nature of the virus strikes right at the core of its culture and ethos. The whole point of a military is to mass together to destroy an enemy. That’s exactly the wrong thing to do when confronting a transmissible virus.

Nevertheless, the U.S. government is relying on the military for a significant part of its effort to contain the pandemic. The Army Corps of Engineers is retrofitting convention centers and hotels into medical facilities in New York and Seattle, the Navy has sent hospital ships to New York and California, and the National Guard is unloading trucks at grocery stores in Arizona. The Defense Department is offering millions of masks and other equipment for the fight; the Army is asking its retired medical service members to consider coming back. But how can the military protect America when it can’t protect itself?

“We are not at war,” wrote Captain Brett Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt in a letter asking superiors for help following an outbreak on the ship while it had 4,800 people aboard. Certain risks the crew would necessarily take in wartime were unacceptable in peacetime, he wrote. But the Navy “cannot allow a single sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.”

“The environment most conducive to the spread of the disease is the environment the crew of the TR is in right now,” Crozier wrote in the letter, which the San Francisco Chronicle published. Thousands of sailors in a confined space. Shared restrooms. Close contact in narrow passageways. Ladders, hatch levers, doorknobs all being touched by numerous other people. Within days of the letter becoming public, the Navy relieved him of command of the ship.

Similar obstacles to social distancing apply to the military as a whole, not just on ships—which is why the Defense Department has largely delegated decisions about health protections to commanders. The lack of unified instruction from the Pentagon’s leadership about necessary precautions and social-distancing enforcements has created a haphazard approach to containment, with more than 1,500 infections and five deaths so far across the military and Defense Department civilians, dependents, and contractors. “I can’t put out a blanket policy, if you will, that we would then apply to everybody, because every situation’s different,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in March, when the virus had recently taken the life of one defense contractor. “Tell me, how do I do six-feet distancing in an attack submarine? Or how do I do that in a bomber with two pilots sitting side by side?”

Navy leadership has defended its actions not evacuating everyone from the Teddy Roosevelt, now docked in Guam with thousands of sailors still aboard after about 100 people tested positive for the coronavirus—all of whom, per Navy officials, have been moved off the ship and isolated. The true number of infections could be higher—as of Wednesday, most of the crew hadn’t even been tested yet, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told reporters. Still, “we cannot and will not remove all the sailors from the ship,” Modly said. “This ship has weapons on it, it has munitions on it, it has expensive aircraft, and it has a nuclear power plant. It requires a certain number of people on that ship to maintain the safety and security of the ship.”

Close quarters have historically contributed to the spread of disease in the military, whether on ships or in boot camps or at overseas bases. For instance, the 1918 Spanish-flu epidemic first appeared in the U.S. at the Army’s Fort Riley, in Kansas, and spread rapidly from there, eventually killing nearly 700,000 Americans within a year.

“All of this was entirely predictable. How could it have not been predictable?” Andrew Milburn, a Marine colonel who retired last year, told me. The original sin, in his view, was Esper’s decision to delegate safety standards to commanders. The result has been a patchwork of different restrictions and regulations across different services and units. The Army halted basic training in March and then reversed itself. The Navy is delaying new boot-camp arrivals by a week after a recruit tested positive. The Marines kept training going until its own outbreak of more than 20 recruits at the Parris Island recruit depot forced it to stop accepting new arrivals until mid-April. The Marine-barracks gym in Washington, D.C., was still open last week as the rest of the city shut down. The Marines haven’t relaxed grooming standards across the service, again delegating the decision down the chain; at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina barbershops remain open on the base, albeit with restrictions, even as the governor has ordered “non-life-sustaining” businesses to shut down across the state.

“This was one time when hierarchical decision making was really, really needed,” Milburn said. “And it just didn’t happen.”

Esper has defended the decision to delegate and even announced enhanced counternarcotics operations, deploying more cramped ships, helicopters, and planes to the Southern Hemisphere and putting yet more service members in risky close quarters. “There seems to be this narrative out there that we should just shut down the entire United States military and address the problem that way,” Esper said at a press conference on Wednesday. “That’s not feasible.” This kind of delegation also isn’t Pentagon-specific; the country as a whole lacks a unified response to the virus, with individual governors deciding when and how severely to restrict residents’ movements.

The military is a highly bureaucratic organization that values toughness, sacrifice, and, maybe above all, standard operating procedures. That culture applies to all kinds of illnesses. “In the Marine Corps, the typical solution [is to] have Motrin and drink water,” said a Marine lieutenant colonel who spoke with me on condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to talk to the press. “And there are times when that’s not the appropriate answer.”

Tom Crabtree, who spent 24 years as an Army surgeon, told me that this approach to treatment was common enough that people referred to Motrin as “Ranger candy.” While he doesn’t see the “Carry on” ethos as unique to the military—“I see the same things at Walmart”—the implications for America’s safety in the world are entirely different. “It’s a very simple fact: A healthy military is a capable military. For all the things that it needs to do and can do,” he said. “An unhealthy military is not.”

And as commanders try to balance protecting the United States from external enemies while battling its own internal pandemic, the question is, when exactly does risking people’s health end up damaging all those other protection missions?

Milburn thinks the military can afford further restrictions. And the Teddy Roosevelt carrier was a case in point. If some ships have to be mothballed for a few weeks to get cleaned and protect the sailors for an actual war when there is one, to him, it’s worth the cost. “Are we really going to cede control of the seas in this short period of time?” he asked.