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How The COVID-19 Oubreak Is Impacting U.S Military Life


A U.S. Navy captain does not quite want to abandon ship, but he did send a letter asking to remove nearly all the sailors from the giant aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt because dozens have been infected with coronavirus.

NPR's Tom Bowman is covering this story. Tom, good morning.


INSKEEP: What happened on the Roosevelt?

BOWMAN: Well, the Roosevelt is now docked in Guam. And the ship's captain, Brett Crozier, said in a letter to Navy officials he wanted to remove 4,000 or so sailors, find lodging for them ashore and disinfect the ship. The reports - anywhere from 50 to now 200 have tested positive for the virus, and he says the virus is accelerating, in his word.

And the top officer for the Pacific Fleet, Admiral John Aquilino, he spoke to reporters last night, Steve. He declined to reveal any numbers about those infected, but he clearly doesn't want to remove all 4,000 sailors at once, as the captain said. He says the ship has to be ready for any crisis, and he insisted that he and the carrier's captain are all on the same sheet of music. He'll rotate sailors off, get them tested but not remove all of them.

INSKEEP: You feel the dilemma there for the military. They want to take care of their people, but they're also determined to remain ready for anything that comes their way.

BOWMAN: That's right.

INSKEEP: How is the coronavirus affecting military life?

BOWMAN: Well, recruiting stations have closed. Everything's online now. Large training exercises have been canceled or curtailed. Both the Marines and Navy have temporarily stopped bringing in new recruits. The Army's still bringing in new recruits, but everyone is trying to make sure there's adequate social distancing during boot camp and basic training.

INSKEEP: You know, Tom, when we had a chance to talk with Mark Esper, the defense secretary, last week, he did highlight one part of the military - one U.S. military base that seemed to have responded early and effectively to this crisis.

BOWMAN: That's right. It's interesting, Steve - when the entire government, the White House and federal agencies, were slow to act, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, General Robert "Abe" Abrams, he moved pretty quickly shortly after the virus emerged in China. He basically shut down his large base with some 28,000 soldiers, and he really had few cases.

And in a recent press briefing with Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, I asked him about how well-prepared the military was. He said after he got back from South Korea in February and saw what the general was doing, he said many assumed the virus would just be localized in Asia. But that assumption was quickly overtaken by the spreading virus. Let's listen.

RYAN MCCARTHY: When we both got back home, we started looking - putting more time against it to better understand the problem set. And to the point that General Flynn made - once Europe really started lighting up, that's when you saw this was a virus that was just morphing very quickly.

BOWMAN: You're saying is at that point, you didn't know how bad it was going to get until it went to Europe, right?

MCCARTHY: 'Cause there was not enough data to really make a determination at that point.

BOWMAN: So it wasn't until that virus spread that the military started to act. And at that point, Steve, everyone was playing catch-up all across the United States government. And I should add that General Abrams in South Korea is now seeing an increase in cases, and he's again putting restrictions on movement and some training, even if readiness suffers.

INSKEEP: Are there some U.S. military bases domestically that now face outbreaks?

BOWMAN: Yeah. Most of the bases around the country are seeing outbreaks, but we don't get a sense that they're seeing a cluster like we're seeing on the Roosevelt. But Steve, as the captain said - and that's true across the military - this thing is still spreading.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.