- Members of the Army, Air Force, and Navy tell Healthline they are fearful of developing COVID-19 on ships and military bases.
- They say the Pentagon is not doing enough to protect them from the virus in their close quarters.
- Veterans organizations also say the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is not providing adequate healthcare for veterans who have COVID-19.
Last week, U.S. Navy Capt. Brett E. Crozier was relieved of his duties as the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
Before his dismissal, Crozier had written an email to Navy personnel expressing concerns for the health of his 5,000 crew members stationed in the Pacific Ocean after dozens of the aircraft carrier’s occupants had tested positive for COVID-19.
In the letter, he warned that members of his crew could die if a large number of them were not evacuated quickly from the ship.
After the letter was made public, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly dismissed Crozier, who on Sunday announced he had tested positive for COVID-19.
A video of Crozier receiving a hero’s farewell from hundreds of members of his crew as he walked down the ship’s gangway went viral.
Modly then flew to Guam and told the Theodore Roosevelt crew in a speech that Crozier was either “too naive or too stupid” to have been in command.
On Tuesday, Modly resigned after apologizing for his remarks.
Nearly 300 of the ship’s crew had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday. One of the crew members was hospitalized in an intensive care unit (ICU) today after being found unresponsive.
Restless, anxious, and frustrated
The situation with the aircraft carrier crew is not an isolated case.
Multiple military sources tell Healthline that it reflects a burgeoning frustration across each branch of the military with the way the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are handling this global pandemic.
Fred Wellman, a retired Army officer and veteran of four combat tours in Iraq, is chief executive officer and founder of ScoutComms, which supports military and veteran causes.
He told Healthline that emotions are running high in the ranks.
“It’s getting bad out there,” Wellman said. “Our troops and our veterans want to know that they will be protected.”
While Department of Defense officials and military branches regularly distribute messages to soldiers and sailors telling them that their concerns are being heard, Wellman said the troops and their families are growing increasingly less convinced.
“The senior staffers are behind measures to prevent spreading the virus, but the junior level leadership still call you names if you express concern,” he said. “The junior leaders just say the Pentagon doesn’t know what they’re talking about, that no one here is sick. It’s the same thing we saw with the suicide stigma.”
Wellman understands that training has to continue and acknowledges that sailors at sea, soldiers on military bases, and pilots and crew on aircraft all by definition live in close quarters.
But this, he said, is an unprecedented situation.
“A soldier on a ventilator is not able to fight,” Wellman said. “And now our service members can take this virus home to their families. This is not business as usual. As hard as it is to accept, the services need to adjust. They are not adjusting.”
At Fort Jackson Army Training Center in South Carolina, Tonya Bracket said she spends each day in fear of her life, her children’s lives, and her husband’s life because of COVID-19.
Bracket, whose husband is a basic combat training commander at the base, said the military has “no real plan” to deal with the virus and is putting troops and their families in danger every day.
“Many people here are scared,” she told Healthline. “Our spouses are working with known positive cases of coronavirus and continuing to work as usual then coming home to our homes.”
Fort Jackson has issued a regulation requiring personnel to wear cloth face masks when they can’t be at least six feet away from another person.
However, Bracket said, there are other concerns.
“The buses taking them out to training events are still operating as normal and trainees are still sitting right next to each other,” said Bracket.
In the bays, she explained, it is impossible to adequately distance trainees.
“Even putting heads at opposite ends of the bunks does not contain the particles in the air with no windows, no air flow, and small showers and bathrooms,” she said.
At the base health clinic, she said, “There is no sectioned-off seating area. I watched as my constant coughs scared a poor older couple near me, rightfully so. But as I stood there trying not to touch anything, I could see in the trainee records room chairs side by side, filled with trainees almost on top of each other, and no masks or gloves.”
Bracket, who has six children with three still at home, said families on the base keep seeking information but are given nothing.
Those who complain, she said, are disciplined.
“This endangers the lives of the cadre and their families,” said Bracket. “My husband’s chain of command has spoken to him no less than three times, by three separate individuals, to browbeat him into controlling me from asking questions.”
Bracket said she knows this is a terrible situation for everyone. But she is fed up.
“We need to be able to protect our country, and because of that I have been hesitant to talk about this,” she said. “But we have been harassed during the last 2 weeks and I don’t care anymore. There’s really nothing else they can do to intimidate us.”
Suicides blamed on pandemic
At the Air Force Academy in Colorado, the COVID-19 crisis is being blamed by some for the suicide of two cadets at the campus two weeks ago.
The Air Force has kept 1,000 cadets on its campus in socially distant single rooms, away from their roommates and virtually everyone.
Efforts to curtail the spread of the coronavirus resulted in fewer people on campus, which meant fewer opportunities for staff members to check in on the cadets to see how they were dealing with the isolation.
The Colorado Springs-based Gazette newspaper reported that in addressing the pandemic the Air Force made the school “prison-like” for about 1,000 cadets who remained on campus.
Rich Normandie, a master sergeant in the Air Force Reserve who has served in the Air Force for 24 years, told Healthline that these cadets are already more isolated than past generations of Air Force cadets.
“Life at the Academy is already difficult and isolated for cadets. When the stress of additional social isolation was placed on them, I could see that the potential effects of that could be too much for them,” he said. “Of course, I have no idea what the mental state of these cadets were leading up to this event, but we worry about these things.”
Normandie pointed out that suicide was already an urgent concern for this branch of the military, which is known for its intense training that pushes enrollees to the limit.
Early this year, it was announced that 137 uniformed Air Force members — active duty, Guard and Reserve — and Air Force civilian employees died by suicide in calendar year 2019.
That’s a 33 percent increase over the 103 deaths by suicide in the Air Force the previous year.
Normandie said there has been more of a social disconnect across the board with the younger Air Force members and this pandemic could be making it worse.
“They’re already more disconnected from the organization,” he said. “I have noticed that these guys in generation Z don’t seem to socialize as much with their fellow airmen in the barracks. We are seeing airmen that are socially isolated from their peers already, with all the social media and networking.”
“We’ve done some Zoom get togethers, but if this goes longer, I am fearful,” he added. “We need to step up our efforts to make contact with the members and make sure they feel valued. We are in a travel ban until May 11. If it goes past that we could see an uptick, and they are already dealing with anxiety.”
Normandie said the pandemic taking its toll on the military families, too, just like all families in the United States
“I have a 14-year-old daughter who stresses about this, too, so I also have to be a strong dad for her. It can be a bit much at times, but I have been working out more and trying to occupy my mind,” he said.
Since the two suicides two weeks ago, social distancing restrictions have been relaxed at the Academy.
A fundamentally different world
Jamie Metzl, a healthcare futurist, geopolitical expert, and novelist who served in the National Security Council, State Department, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that some people still believe this crisis is like a snowstorm in which you plow the streets when it subsides and get back to normal.
“But our world will be fundamentally different on the other side, for our military and the rest of society,” he told Healthline. “There are certain precautions against this deadly virus that physically can’t happen in the military. The Navy can’t have social distancing in an aircraft carrier or submarine. There is not enough space.”
“But if there are ships and submarines at sea in which there is no coronavirus,” he added, “we keep them at sea for the foreseeable future, as long as possible. We maintain these islands that are protected.”
Vets receiving rationed care
Meanwhile, veterans in the United States say they wonder how the VA will be able to properly care for veterans in the coming weeks and months.
They say there have already been substantial cuts in services because of the pandemic and more appear to be on the way.
The VA is in a state of flux as it transitions to fulfill its “fourth mission,” which is to provide medical assistance and personnel to civilian health systems during a national emergency.
The agency has played that role during natural disasters before in localized areas such as the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina, but never on anything of this magnitude.
Can veterans be assured that the VA’s Veterans Health Administration (VHA), which provides health services to 9 million veterans each year, will offer adequate care for veterans when the agency is becoming increasingly focused on civilians fighting COVID-19?
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has expressed confidence that the agency is prepared to help with the civilian needs in this pandemic and still give veterans what they need.
But a report from the VA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released two weeks ago states that VA hospital supplies of medicine used to treat critically ill people may be insufficient.
The investigation by the OIG sent 52 staff members, most with clinical experience, unannounced to 237 different facilities from March 19 to 24.
A day after the report was released, Wilkie again tried to assure the public that all is well and that the agency is prepared for this onslaught
“VA has a world-class medical team doing incredible work on the front lines of this fight,” he said.
Affecting VA staff and patients
The independent publication Task & Purpose reports that more than 1,000 VA employees have tested positive for COVID-19.
According to the Military Times, 144 VA patients have died from the virus as of April 7. In addition, seven VA healthcare staffers have also died.
Last week, a top VA official sent the agency’s nearly 400,000 employees with a “safety brief” on personal protective equipment — the critical masks, gloves, and supplies that keep workers safe as they care for people battling the outbreak.
In the brief, the VHA’s chief of staff Lawrence B. Connell assured the employees that the current supply of medical equipment remained adequate.
However, a half hour later, an official from the VA hospital system in Los Angeles told staff that were about to begin rationing supplies.
BuzzFeed reported that the situation had grown so dire that medical personnel caring for people who had tested positive for COVID-19 would receive only a single surgical mask per shift rather than the N95 respirators recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
VA’s own staff have raised concerns about the agency’s readiness.
In late March, unions that represent VA employees reported that its members had warned of shortages of personal protective equipment and “serious problems” with leave policies for exposed workers.
VA employees are bringing in their own masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer because VA was not providing these things, according to BuzzFeed.
In its coronavirus response plan shared publicly last week, the VA estimated the outbreak could last 18 months or longer and include multiple waves of illness.
During that time, VA leaders estimate that about 30 percent of its employees will be unable to work because they or a family member will become sick.
Veterans’ mental health
Many veterans and veteran advocates interviewed by Healthline said that among their biggest concerns is the mental health aspects of veterans.
“The real challenge is dealing with the self-isolation of the older veterans,” said Wellman. “Older guys don’t want to do telehealth and some of them have addiction issues. Without that lifeline, I’m concerned.”
Thomas Bandzul, a longtime advocate for veterans and legislative counsel for Veterans and Military Families for Progress, said there is “no core knowledge” within VA as to how to handle this pandemic.
“VA medical healthcare professionals are going to work in outside agency to learn what to do and leave veterans everywhere in the lurch,” he said.
The VA’s case is not helped by the fact that the VA’s undersecretary for benefits Dr. Paul Lawrence recently announced that the agency plans to eliminate the accredited veterans service officer (VSO) 48-hour review period for veterans’ disability claims.
This goes into effect on April 30.
Without that review period, Bandzul explained, “If there is an error in the veteran’s disability decision, it’s final. The veteran has no path of appeal and the claim will have to be filed as a new claim.”
Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) national commander William “Doc” Schmitz called the VA’s decision to take away this protection for veterans “despicable” and “inconceivable.”
“The VFW strongly opposes the repeal of the 48-hour review period in reviewing VA decisions for accuracy, as this is a final quality control check that we perform on behalf of our veterans to ensure that their rating decisions are correct the first time,” said Schmitz.
The VA responds
In an email interview, Christina Noel, press secretary for VA, told Healthline that the “VA stands ready to support civilian healthcare systems in the event those systems encounter capacity issues.”
She said the agency is ready to do its part during this pandemic.
“Requests for such support come from states and would flow through the Department of Health and Human Services, as part of FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center,” Noel said.
“VA facilities are equipped with essential items and supplies to handle an influx of coronavirus cases, but specific operational capabilities of VA facilities are sensitive in nature,” she said.
“VA continues to take necessary preparedness actions to ensure the continuity of our healthcare system to provide care for our veterans,” she added.
Regarding the OIG report, which was skeptical of the VA’s readiness, Noel said, “This dated review doesn’t represent the rapidly changing situations at VA medical centers, where our employees continue to perform amazingly well as they implement the department’s comprehensive COVID-19 response plan.”
Additionally, she said, “VA is concerned that in conducting its review, IG investigators did not abide by CDC guidelines regarding social distancing, and their movement from one facility to the next could possibly have made them COVID-19 vectors that put our patients and staff at risk.”
She concluded, “While there is always room for improvement, VA remains committed to supporting veterans as America deals with the COVID-19 outbreak.”
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