- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2020

It’s a stealth enemy whose multi-front attack has left the Pentagon scrambling to respond.

As the deadly coronavirus spreads from continent to continent, U.S. military officials are being forced to put critical combat exercises on hold and restrict U.S. troops to their bases. Meanwhile, senior Pentagon officials have been meeting on nearly a daily basis for weeks as they seek to protect troops deployed in affected areas and sailors visiting ports around the world.

Vice President Mike Pence has promised a “whole-of-government” mobilization to meet the challenge of the coronavirus, but perhaps no part of the administration faces a bigger challenge than the Pentagon. As with the State Department but in far greater numbers, U.S. military forces are stationed around the world, deeply embedded in the local economy and typically in constant contact with local residents.

U.S. military bases are being eyed as quarantine sites for coronavirus patients. Leave and liberty have been restricted for U.S. service personnel in affected countries. Commissaries report shortages amid a run on supplies to help ward off infections, while military base schools, day care centers and movie theaters have been shuttered.

In some of the countries hardest hit by the epidemic — South Korea, Japan, Italy — U.S. troops are posted in significant numbers.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged Monday that the military has “modified” some of the exercises scheduled to take place in Korea, where the first U.S. military member to test positive for the coronavirus was assigned.

“There was a [command post exercise] that was scheduled. The Korean chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff requested that it be postponed,” Gen. Milley said. “We’re going to go ahead and do that.”

Grounding ‘Eagle Genesis’

Israel is more than 5,000 miles from South Korea, but that distance has not stopped the global health scare from derailing military readiness operations in that country. The Pentagon on Monday postponed the “Eagle Genesis” training exercises that would have had soldiers from the Israeli Defense Forces training alongside American paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, based in Italy.

Italy has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. More than 50 deaths have been recorded and more than 2,000 cases have been confirmed.

According to the Times of Israel newspaper, the country’s health ministry blocked all visitors to Israel from Italy — including American soldiers — and ordered Israelis returning from Italy to self-quarantine for two weeks.

“In light of instructions from the Health Ministry and the inclusion of Italy in the list of countries from which people arriving [in Israel] must be quarantined, it was decided to postpone the joint exercise between [the U.S. European Command] and the Ground Forces,” the Israeli Defense Forces said in a statement.

Pentagon officials say they are looking at the schedule of upcoming military drills to see if they need to be modified or suspended as a result of the coronavirus, Gen. Milley said.

Some exercises are going forward as planned.

The annual, multinational Cobra Gold exercises in Thailand are currently underway in the same Indo-Pacific region where the virus erupted. It’s the same for the U.S.-led Defender Europe 2020, a massive war games exercise that is sending a division-sized U.S. contingent to Europe.

“We’re looking at the exercises, but right now we don’t see any significant negative impact,” Gen. Milley said.

Still, schools and child development centers for American military dependents in the Army’s garrison in Vicenza, Italy are expected to be closed for at least another week. Theaters and fitness centers will also remain shuttered until further notice, officials there said.

The State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending against any travel to Italy.

“Please make sure friends and families who planned a visit here in the feature future understand these restrictions,” Col. Daniel Vogel, the garrison commander in Vicenza, said in a statement to residents. “Garrison leadership meets twice a day as we monitor the situation and coordinate precautionary measures.”

By Monday, Italy had recorded more than 2,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and many confirmed patients have not exhibited flu-like symptoms.

“We have zero confirmed cases of [coronavirus) for any U.S. service members, civilians or family members in the U.S. Army Garrison Italy,” Col. Vogel said in his statement.

Military officials said they are prepared to quarantine — or initiate “Restriction of Movement” isolation — for any affected service member or family based at Vicenza.

“We are ready to provide appropriate health care coverage, logistics support and morale and welfare support for any service member placed under,” the order, Col. Vogel said.

The Red Cross is expected to deliver supplies to U.S. military families living there, including soap containers, hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes and portable hand washing stations.

Korean case

A U.S. soldier assigned to Korea tested positive for COVID-19 Coronavirus as did his wife, making her the fourth person connected to U.S. Forces-Korea who have been confirmed with the virus.

The woman, who has not been identified, went into self-quarantine on Feb. 26, following her husband’s positive test. She was later taken to a U.S. military hospital there where she’ll remain in isolation and under medical care. She had not been in contact with anyone else since going into self-quarantine, officials said.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said Monday that he is leaving it up to the commanders at the local level to determine the best policy to deal with any coronavirus concerns.

“Commanders of individually affected geographic commands have all the authority they need and will provide specific guidance to their troops as the situation continues to evolve,” he said.

U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations and facilities in the Middle East, has suspended leave and liberty for all troops deployed in the region.

“U.S. Central Command is taking multiple prudent measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 coronavirus and to mitigate the operational risk such transmission would pose,” said Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for the Tampa-based combatant command.

U.S. warships that have made stops at ports in the Pacific have reportedly been told to remain at sea for two weeks in a kind of self-quarantine, CNN reported.

Military scientists are also taking a lead role in the hunt for a medical treatment for the coronavirus known as COVID-19.

“Our military research labs are working feverishly around the horn here to try to come up with a vaccine. We’ll see how that develops over the next couple of months,” Gen. Milley said.

It’s no great surprise that U.S. military members have fared better than others after being exposed to the coronavirus, Gen. Milley said.

“We have a very young demographic in the U.S. military — a healthy demographic with lots of immunizations,” he said.

• Mike Glenn can be reached at mglenn@washingtontimes.com.

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