August 27, 2020

Warren, Hirono, Murray, and Colleagues Again Seek Answers from Department of Defense Secretary Esper on Slow and Disjointed Response to COVID-19

Senators write to DoD's after it deflected legitimate concerns with false accusations; Continued rise in new cases raises ongoing concerns about readiness and morale; Coronavirus cases are rising at alarming rates within DoD; Department has not tested the vast majority of servicemembers five months into pandemic

Senators' initial request (PDF) | DoD response (PDF) | Senators' new follow up (PDF) 

Washington, DC - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Member of Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Member of SASC, and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Ranking Member of Senate HELP, along with Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) once again asked Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper about his failure to meaningfully respond to questions about DoD's strategy for addressing the ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. In DoD's May 12th response, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs instead deflected the senators' concerns by making the false and inflammatory accusation that they "do not respect the 62,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines currently deployed across the nation in support of their fellow Americans."

"In order to determine whether or not you are planning appropriately to limit further case growth and to maintain readiness and morale amidst the pandemic, we therefore ask - again - that you provide factual answers to the following questions sent in our April 27, 2020 letter," wrote the senators in their follow up letter

The senators continued: "To be clear: our motivation is to protect the health and well-being of servicemembers and their families, and our concerns are with you and the civilian leadership at DoD who are responsible for keeping American servicemembers and their families safe and ready to accomplish their missions." 

The senators noted that cases within the Department are rising at an alarming rate. The number of cases among DoD personnel and contractors increased by more than 33% in the first ten days of July, which was more than twice the nationwide rate of growth during the same time period. In July alone, confirmed cases across the Department rose by approximately 21,000, more than a 100% increase. The recent outbreak on two bases in Okinawa led the Japanese Minister of Defense to accuse "the U.S. military of lax coronavirus controls," stating that there were "several problems with the U.S. military's preventive measures."  

Also in July at least 40 servicemembers and dependents tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in South Korea, raising new questions about the effectiveness of DoD protocols that personnel are required to restrict their movements for 14 days before commencing official travel, so these reports of servicemembers and dependents testing positive for the virus upon arrival at their duty station suggest that more must be done to prevent further spread of the virus. Ensuring American servicemembers and dependents do not have COVID-19 before traveling abroad must be of paramount concern to DoD leadership in order to maintain trust with partners and allies. 

The senators wrote that they are pleased to see that the Department is taking some precautionary measures to address the spread of the virus, but expressed concerns that the Department is still not properly prioritizing the health and well-being of our servicemembers.

"Congress stands ready to support the Department, but we cannot do so if basic questions are not answered regarding DoD's response," wrote the senators in their follow up letter.