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As virus spreads, military weighs national security vs. health and safety

In this handout photo provided by the US Navy, the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), left, the Royal Navy air defense destroyer HMS Defender (D 36) and the guided-missile destroyer USS Farragut (DDG 99) transit the Strait of Hormuz on November 19, 2019. (Zachary Pearson- U.S. Navy via Getty Images/TNS)

The coronavirus knows no boundaries. It cares not whether its targets are children or adults, men or women, young or old. And it certainly doesn’t take note of whether its host wears a uniform. And that has presented some daunting challenges for the military, whose mission first and foremost is to protect the national security.

Over the last two weeks, as the number of coronavirus cases among local military units has steadily risen, Sailors, Marines, civilian workers and military family members have asked why the military isn’t doing more to keep service members at home and why some units reportedly are carrying on as usual.

The answer is that individual commanders have been empowered by the Pentagon to make their own, sometimes disparate decisions on how to handle the pandemic, weighing individual mission priorities against the health of personnel.

In some cases, ship commanders have called their crews back on board for at least 14 days, while other leaders have ordered personnel to work from home. The new normal of social distancing and “stay at home” orders is also impacting the civilian national defense work force, as maintenance and shipyard workers — deemed essential personnel — continue to commute to work in the San Diego shipyards and Coronado.

It’s not business as usual on Navy ships, says Navy Lt. Rachel McMarr, a Pacific Fleet spokeswoman.

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“Direction has come down putting mitigation in place,” McMarr said Friday. “There’s no way this isn’t visible. It’s hard to believe anyone isn’t taking this seriously.”

Navy ships in the Pacific have been screening the health of people coming on board for a few weeks, and ships at sea were ordered in late February to remain at sea at least two weeks between port visits.

One of the issues raised by people The San Diego Union-Tribune spoke with — people who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals — is why when many people are being told to stay at home, so many in the defense industry are going to work.

“The defense industry is one of the essential industries that has an exception,” said Mark Balmert, a retired rear admiral and executive director of the San Diego Military Advisory Council, citing the exception these workers are granted in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive “stay at home” order.

Balmert, who retired as an expeditionary strike group commander, said sometimes commanders don’t communicate enough with the families of service members.

“The information that gets to the families helps relax everybody,” he said. “Because there (isn’t) a single policy, that made the communication not as effective.”

The reason there isn’t a single policy, as Thomas Modly, the acting Navy secretary said at a briefing Tuesday, is that the Navy — and the military as a whole — empowers commanders to make decisions they feel is best for their units.

“We have to leave a lot of these decisions to the operational commanders to understand what their missions are and how critical they are,” Modly said Tuesday.

At the briefing, Modly also acknowledged he’d heard there were some “anomalies” in implementing certain COVID-19 precautions, such as limiting mass gatherings.

“We are hearing about some anomalies and we’re trying to address those, but generally speaking, we are leaving those decisions to the commander,” Modly said.

For ships in port, the virus presents another challenge, because sailors go to work and then return home each day.

In San Diego, the amphibious ships Makin Island, Somerset and San Diego will keep their crews on board for at least two weeks, according to the Navy’s San Diego-based 3rd Fleet.

Another ship, the carrier Abraham Lincoln, which pulled into its berth at Naval Air Station North Island on March 19, is only having part of its crew come in each day on a rotating basis to minimize the risk of spread.

“We are 100% taking it serious, minimizing contact and maximizing attack tools,” one Abraham Lincoln sailor told The San Diego Union-Tribune during a phone interview. The sailor, who asked to remain anonymous because he’s not authorized to speak to the press, said he is “proud” of the steps his ship has taken to fight the virus.

“Every day, twice a day for about an hour, they tell everybody to stop what they’re doing and sanitize everything,” he said. “They don’t want us to clean — they want us to disinfect.”

Cmdr. Ron Flanders, a spokesman for Naval Air Forces, confirmed that the Lincoln has minimized its daily manning to essential personnel, but said the ship is ready to deploy if needed.

“It can still respond to contingencies,” Flanders said.

The Lincoln sailor agreed with the need to be ready.

“At the end of the day, we are the military, and there are actual threats out there,” he said.

The need to be ready, or “readiness” in military-speak, extends to the training of new Marines at the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot, as well. There, recruits continue to fly in from all parts of the country west of the Mississippi, but the depot has taken steps to protect its Marines, it says.

“They’re coming in and being socially distanced at receiving,” said Capt. Martin Harris, an MCRD spokesman. Harris said the idea is to keep recruits coming in separated from those who have already been at the depot more than two weeks, the suspected incubation period of COVID-19.

Like operational units, the recruit depot is a cog in the larger national defense system. Any disruption in its mission could have an effect downrange.

“The Marine Corps as a whole has a mission to provide a trained and ready force of Marines to protect U.S. interests all over the world,” Harris said. “It’s a process, and it has to be maintained at a certain level — we have to produce (a certain) amount of Marines this year, and to do that, we have to train (a certain) amount.”

In an email to local leaders, MCRD’s commanding general, Brig. Gen. Ryan Heritage, explained some of the changes the Marines are making to ensure the safety of the community.

“We have closed non-essential facilities on the depot and have taken unprecedented steps to protect our staff, the greater community that hosts us, and most importantly our vulnerable recruit population,” Heritage wrote in the email. “This is certainly not a business-as-usual situation for anyone. We understand that the path through this current crisis requires a unified effort, and we will do our part as proud members of the San Diego Community.”

Although the depot recently canceled its public graduations, recruits are still gathering at the boot camp chapel on Sundays, Harris said, although they’ve taken steps there as well.

“They have been changed to facilitate social distancing,” Harris said. “All the recruits still have the opportunity to practice their faith, (but) they’re sitting six feet from each other.”

So far, no recruits have tested positive for COVID-19, he said.

“We’ve been a little bit lucky or a lot prepared,” Harris said. “Or maybe the other way around.”

Two major defense industry operations that employ around 10,000 civilians between them — the Fleet Readiness Center at NAS North Island and the NASSCO shipyard in National City — have also altered their workflow in response to the coronavirus.

At FRC, one worker told The San Diego Union-Tribune, staff has been split into day and night shifts in an attempt to have fewer people at their facilities at once. At NASSCO, workers have been given letters in case they are challenged about being out, including those who cross the border each day.

So far, a NASSCO official said, there hasn’t been any problems with their staff at the border.

“Things are going as well as they can be,” the official said.

Balmert said military officials should be communicating more with the families who are concerned about their service members, but they should also be careful about signaling too much about what they’re doing.

“The Defense Department is balancing trying to relax people while not sending signals that we’re not ready,” he said. “We don’t want a bad actor to do something because they think we’re not ready. Even with the Theodore Roosevelt, tied up in Guam, they let people know they’re ready to go. National security comes first.”

One Navy spouse, whose husband is deployed on the carrier Theodore Roosevelt, said its captain, Capt. Brett Crozier, has been updating families as the ship confronts at least two dozen sailors on board who have tested positive for the virus.

The ship pulled into Guam Thursday. The Navy is testing its entire crew of more than 5,000 for COVID-19.

It’s unclear if the results of those tests will be known anytime soon, however, as the Navy is no longer naming ships with positive cases.

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© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.