Some practices adopted during the current pandemic have benefited the troops and may continue after it abates, Mark Esper, Defense secretary, said.
Esper said at a virtual town hall meeting, that a recent visit to Parris Island, S.C., taught him that measures like wearing face masks and social distancing had prevented COVID-19 cases and other respiratory tract illnesses, leading to an overall decrease in sick-call numbers.
That resulted in more recruits available for training, so many of these measures will likely continue even after the 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 Adviser to the Chairman Ramón ‘’CZ’’ Colón-López at the town hall, who answered questions from Service members, civilians and family members from around the world.
‘’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 more available, which has demonstrated to be as effective, in many cases, as live training.
Another lesson, he said, is how to overcome challenges working in close quarters, like tanks, submarines or aircraft. To meet the challenge, the services have quarantined personnel before they are together in close quarters; once together, they take additional precautions.
Colón-López said many of the lessons come from feedback on things that are working and things that aren’t. He encouraged everyone to keep feedback and comments coming through chains of command.
The SEAC also noted an important lesson 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 … 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 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 the department is transitioning to a conditions-based, phased approach to personnel, movement and travel. Recently published guidance will lessen the burden on DoD personnel and their families, while ensuring continued operations, safely, he said.
The department is providing commanders additional guidance as they look to change health-condition levels at installations. ‘’These measures will allow commanders to make risk-based decisions as they begin to return to normal operations inline with local missions, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, and in consultation with their medical leadership,” he said.
“We are not going to open up the Pentagon or other installations, unless we are confident it is a 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,” Esper said.
Milley offered final advice: ‘’Keep your eye on the mission, continue to take care of yourselves. Continue to take care of your families.’’
This story originally ran in the Belvoir Eagle on June 3, 2020.