FACT CHECK: Defense Chief Exaggerates Criticism Of Military In Fighting Coronavirus

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Wednesday.
Alex Brandon/AP

In describing the steps the military is taking to confront the coronavirus pandemic, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said some are calling for the entire U.S. military to cease operations.

"There seems to be this narrative out there that we should just shut down the entire United States military and address the problem that way. That's not feasible," said Esper Wednesday during the White House's coronavirus task force briefing.

It is a claim that does not appear to have a source.

Howard Altman, managing editor of Military Times, told NPR that the publication is not aware of anyone arguing for all of America's armed forces to stop working.

In fact, just the opposite is true, according to Altman. Military personnel and loved ones have been urging the U.S. military to do more to keep troops safe from the highly-contagious virus.

"My inbox has been flooded with complaints from troops and families of troops with concerns that the military is not doing enough to mitigate the spread of COVID-19," Altman said.

"We're hearing some troops say that not enough has been done on the local level to socially distance," he said, pointing to some Marine barber shops and gyms that remain open while most of the nation is on lockdown.

It is not entirely clear what may have provoked Esper to deliver the comment.

Esper issued an order last week temporarily putting an end to major movement by U.S. forces around the globe, a move some publications dubbed a troop movement shut down.

"The purpose is to make sure that we're not bringing the virus back home, infecting others, that we're not spreading it around the military," Esper told Reuters.

The Navy is preparing to evacuate thousands of sailors from a virus-stricken aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt. The mass disembarkment comes after the commanding officer of the ship had asked that nearly all of the sailors be removed from the aircraft carrier and quarantined in Guam. That's where the Roosevelt is now docked. Officials said at least 93 sailors on the ship tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Was the captain's demand that the ship be evacuated interpreted by Esper to mean there may be a wider perception that it is too dangerous for the military to operate during the pandemic? If so, who is advancing this suggestion? Answers remain elusive.

Altman said most U.S. training exercises around the world have been scaled back or canceled, but shooting wars are still being carried out by other armed forces, including on Ukraine's eastern front, where a bloody conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists is still simmering.

"The U.S. military is hunkering down," Altman said. "But it's not shutting down."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.