Cicilline, Pocan Lead Call for Urgent Update on Servicemember Protections from Coronavirus

Mar 19, 2020

WASHINGTON – U.S. Congressmen David N. Cicilline (RI-01) and Mark Pocan (WI-02) led a group of 82 members of Congress today in demanding that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper provide an urgent report on what is being done to protect our nation’s servicemembers around the world from exposure to the coronavirus.

“While we understand that this crisis continues to evolve rapidly, it is essential that the proper actions be taken to address the danger posed to U.S. forces,” the members wrote. “This includes minimizing exposure of our nation’s servicemembers, ensuring that testing is available to those who may experience symptoms, and that rapidly and efficiently providing the proper treatment to those who become infected.”

 

Of the more than one million American servicemembers stationed around the world, tens of thousands are stationed in countries with exceptionally high numbers of coronavirus cases, including Italy, South Korea, and nations neighboring Iran. Multiple reports of little or even no access for servicemembers to coronavirus testing have raised serious concerns about the administration’s ability to keep American troops safe during this pandemic.

 

The full text of the letter is embedded below. A digital copy can be accessed by clicking here.

 

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Dear Secretary Esper:

 

We write with ongoing concern over the worldwide spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).  Specifically,  we write to ask what preparations have been taken to limit exposure to, and provide treatment of COVID-19 for U.S. servicemembers stationed in countries throughout the world.

 

While the Department of Defense recently announced restrictions on domestic travel for U.S. servicemembers, a recent report indicated that the actual number of servicemembers infected is likely undercounted.  Officials have attributed this to the fact that many servicemembers tend to be of younger age, and in good physical health, thus allowing them to potentially become carriers of COVID-19 without exhibiting the types of symptoms that would require testing.[1]  With more than one million U.S. military personnel stationed abroad, servicemembers remain at risk to exposure to COVID-19.  While this poses a significant challenge, it is essential that action be taken to provide as clear an assessment as possible of how many servicemembers are at greatest risk.

 

In two of the countries hardest hit by the spread of COVID-19, the United States maintains a substantial military presence. In South Korea, where there are nearly 28,000 troops stationed, there have been more than 8,000 cases.[2]  In Italy, which has seen the most cases of infections outside of China with over 10,000, more than 4,000 U.S. troops are stationed on 3 military bases, and is also the location of one of the few reported servicemembers to test positive.[3]

 

What is particularly troubling are the dangers faced by U.S. forces serving in Afghanistan. It was recently revealed that there is “no availability of testing” for U.S. forces stationed in Afghanistan.[4]  In addition to the dangers that servicemembers deployed to Afghanistan face on a daily basis, many of the nearly 13,000 forces deployed in Afghanistan are deployed near Iran, which accounts for the third most reported cases of COVID-19 with nearly 13,000.  It remains unclear what is being done to prepare for the possibility of a spike in COVID-19 cases among U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  This is unacceptable given the sacrifice servicemembers have already made during the nearly 19 year war in Afghanistan.

 

While we understand that this crisis continues to evolve rapidly, it is essential that the proper actions be taken to address the danger posed to U.S. forces.  This includes minimizing exposure of our nation’s servicemembers, ensuring that testing is available to those who may experience symptoms, and that rapidly and efficiently providing the proper treatment to those who become infected.  To that end, we demand that the Department of Defense provide a detailed report on what contingencies are already in place, what actions are planned moving forward, and what resources are needed to properly meet the needs of our brave men and women in uniform. This report should also address the following questions:

 

  • How many servicemembers stationed abroad, including in Afghanistan, have requested a COVID-19 test, and how many have already been tested?
  • What is the protocol for individual servicemembers that feel ill while stationed abroad?
  • For those deployed to Afghanistan, what is the protocol for those that fell ill or exhibit symptoms of COVID-19?

  

 We thank you for your attention to this critical matter, and for your continued support for U.S. servicemembers.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

[1] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-pentagon/pentagon-says-coronavirus-cases-likely-higher-than-official-count-idUSKBN20X2PR

[2] https://experience.arcgis.com/experience/685d0ace521648f8a5beeeee1b9125cd

[3] https://www.npr.org/2020/03/09/813845222/u-s-forces-in-south-korea-and-italy-are-told-to-stay-put-as-coronavirus-spreads

[4] https://www.rollcall.com/2020/03/13/no-availability-of-coronavirus-tests-for-troops-in-afghanistan/