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The U.S. Military Continues Operations Worldwide Despite The Pandemic


Nearly all of the U.S. has been in lockdown now for weeks, but the same cannot be said of the U.S. military. Around the world, aircraft carriers are still in operation, troops are training with allies, and they continue combat missions. The Air Force is flying supplies to large bases and remote airstrips.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now to talk about how the military is operating in this age of face masks and social distancing. Hi, Tom.


SHAPIRO: So does the fact that the military can't just hunker down like the rest of us mean that troops are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19?

BOWMAN: Oh, I think that's right. And let's start with the Navy. It's been a real hotspot for the virus. Separating on a ship, of course, can be a challenge. Many know the carrier Theodore Roosevelt had a serious outbreak last month - 940 cases, or about 20% of the crew, after pulling into Guam.

Then, Ari, you had the destroyer USS Kidd, which was off Central America when a sailor tested positive. He had to be medevaced. The Navy actually stopped giving a daily virus-positive number on the Kidd, so you had to extrapolate on what was released. So on that ship - testing's concluded - you're looking at about 100 cases on the roughly (unintelligible) member crew - so roughly about 25% of the ship.

Now, the Navy has stepped up precautions. The carrier USS Nimitz just got underway after a 27-day quarantine. All hands were tested to make sure the crew was able to conduct operations at sea.

SHAPIRO: OK, so a serious outbreak in the Navy. What about the largest branch of the military, the Army? How are Army operations being affected by the disease?

BOWMAN: Well, it's had a big impact on the Army as well. And I was in Iraq and Syria last month with soldiers. We went to villages in northeast Syria. We were surrounded by kids and adults. Now those patrols have stopped because of the virus.

Training foreign forces has switched from the ground to - get this, Ari - drones. So the drone feed will watch Iraqi forces, let's say conduct operations at a training site. Then the Americans will give them feedback on a video conference call. Army military exercises with allies have been scaled back. One just wrapped up in Thailand. Another will be in Poland this summer, but not with the large troop movements you'd see in the past. You have squads of up to about 10 soldiers doing maneuvers, and troops are also wearing masks and not sleeping so close together in barracks as you would have seen in the past.

SHAPIRO: How does all this square up with the defense secretary's order to stop travel?

BOWMAN: Well, you have to continue some operations. Some troops will rotate overseas - continue that. Troops will be coming back from Afghanistan to get that number down to 8,600 troops that the White House wanted by July. They could be coming home sooner, I'm told. And, of course, when they get home to the United States, they'll be quarantined.

SHAPIRO: And what about the Air Force? How are they handling the virus?

BOWMAN: Well, Ari, unlike ground forces, the Air Force, of course, can separate from allies a lot easier in the sky. So exercises and training continues in places like Japan, South Korea. Air Force cargo crews are carefully screened before they fly supplies and troops, evacuate patients all around the world. Now the Air Force has devised a safe way to transport COVID-19-positive patients. It's a module or a pod that would be placed on a cargo aircraft to keep a patient isolated. Now, such a module was used to move the first virus-positive patients from Afghanistan to a military hospital in Germany earlier this month.

SHAPIRO: Briefly, is the military experiencing the same testing shortages that civilians are in the U.S.?

BOWMAN: Absolutely. Everyone is trying to get supplies, and it's a real problem. So the military, you know, has to deal with that. And they'll test the top-tier forces first - that's special operators, nuclear force, ships and subs - but the entire 1.4 million member military, Ari, they won't be able to test all those folks until sometime this summer.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.

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