Coronavirus battle rips up soldiers' playbook: forces Army to forget routines, focus on health

WASHINGTON – The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the routines of the Army – an institution that thrives on them – from the raw recruit to the top rungs, the top civilian and military officials told USA TODAY on Tuesday.

Out: mass formations of soldiers in combat training.

In: Individual rifle work.

Out: Military brass huddled around Pentagon conference tables.

In: Zoom meetings.

"It's been an extraordinary moment in our history because of the tenuous balance of being able to perform missions to support national objectives, but really protecting the force," Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in a video interview. "Because if we don't have a healthy force, we can't help the nation. We can't defend the nation."

McCarthy – joined six feet away (measured by arms length-plus) by Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff – outlined Army efforts to keep privates and generals healthy, aid stricken cities and states, and ease the strain on troops and their families. 

The Army had 523 cases of coronavirus among soldiers, their families and civilian workers as of Tuesday morning. Of those cases, 212 were sick soldiers. On Monday, the first U.S. service member to die of the virus was a soldier, a New Jersey National Guardsman.

Military impact:Coronavirus forces cuts to training, recruiting, causing strains

Members of the New York Air and Army National Guard move a pallet of bananas that was unloaded from a Feeding Westchester truck at the New Rochelle Community Action Partnership, at the WestCOP building in New Rochelle, March 12, 2020.

McConville repeatedly has spoken of creating "safety bubbles" around soldiers and their families to isolate them from the virus. Those bubbles have soldiers essentially sheltering in place, like much of America, leaving their homes or quarters only to buy groceries or see the doctor.

"They're not doing large formations. They're not doing town halls where they all come together. They are not doing large collective exercises, but they may still be doing individual shooting or individual training, where the leaders can make sure that they are minimizing exposure and protecting the force," McConville said. 

What's good for the goose is good for the general, and secretary as well.

"You go home and you really are limited where you and your family can go," McCarthy said. "Like, my wife and I go for a walk at night. And my daughter has to do classes online at home. When we go to the store, we put on safety gloves and we wipe all of our groceries down with Clorox wipes."

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said he employs the same safety practices in his own life that he's asking of soldiers.

Finding the right balance between personal safety and reassuring soldiers and the nation also means visits by senior leaders to the front line. McConville on Sunday toured the Javits Convention Center in New York that soldiers and contractors are converting into a 1,000-bed hospital for COVID-19 patients. There are now plans to triple that number to 3,000 beds within weeks, McConville said.

"I went to New York City, because we sent soldiers there," McConville said. "And we should not send soldiers anywhere leaders are not willing to go."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces plans to convert the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan into a field hospital as coronavirus cases continue to rise.

The Army has been modeling on how the virus could travel through the ranks, McCarthy said, but the data have not been conclusive.

In the meantime, commanders continue to monitor their soldiers for the stress the pandemic is causing for them and their families. Domestic abuse could become more problematic as isolation from fellow soldiers increases, gyms are closed and missions not considered essential are pared back, McCarthy said.

"We're going to watch that very closely," he said.

Stressed, no doubt, but still very capable, McConville noted.

"I can tell you as the chief of staff of the Army, the Army stands ready to fight and win against anyone that wishes us harm," McConville said. 

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For all the disruption the disease has wrought through the ranks, what surprised McCarthy most came in meetings with Army scientists. They've made advances in developing a vaccine, even testing some on human volunteers. That didn't surprise McCarthy.

How quickly the virus spreads astounded him.

"Just how contagious this flu is, versus other flu strains that we've had in in previous decades, really," McCarthy said. "And just the nature of this flu is what makes it most unique, at least from the data."

That makes social distancing, hand washing, all the healthy behaviors critical for soldiers and civilians.

"It's affecting everybody in your communities," McCarthy said. "You've really, really got to lean in as a result. We're going to get through this, we're going to get a vaccine, but on a very personal level, take care of yourselves."

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