How COVID-19 is impacting the US military

Written by:
June 16, 2020
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How COVID-19 is impacting the US military

No person or organization is immune from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that includes the military. Despite their staggering $934 billion budget, the armed forces have been dealt a major blow by the public health crisis. The military has had more than 10,000 cases of COVID-19 among its service members, members' families, civilians, and contractors. It has had to cancel graduation ceremonies at its academies, postpone deployments, issue domestic and international travel bans, mandate social distancing and mask wearing, shift recruitment efforts online, and pause basic training. It's safe to say that the effects of these measures will be felt for a long time to come.

But there's another side to this story: The military is a massive institution employing more than 142 million civilians and 1.3 million active-duty service members. It's rich in resources and well equipped to deal with emergencies. A pandemic is the exact type of crisis the military is made to face head-on—and it's been doing just that.

Amid all the changes it has needed to make, it has also kicked into gear helping to develop a vaccine for new coronaviruses, sending hospital ships to New York City and Los Angeles, building temporary health care centers in hard-hit areas, assisting governors with their states' relief efforts, testing civilians for COVID-19, and providing places for travelers to quarantine after disembarking from cruise ships with cases of the virus. The United States, as well as other countries like Italy, has looked to the military as one of many major helpers during the pandemic.

No two service members or branches of the military have been impacted by the coronavirus in the exact same way, but looking at COVID-19's sweeping effects on the military in general can give you a sense of how personnel are holding up. To learn about how the U.S. military has been impacted by the pandemic, Stacker looked at news articles, research papers, timelines from the Defense Department, official memos, and government materials. The result is an interesting series of slides exploring a mix of innovations, heroic acts, and tragedies in the military over the last few months.

Read on to learn more about how (and what) the military is doing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over 10,000 cases within the Department of Defense

There were at least 10,462 cases of COVID-19 within the Department of Defense as of June 5. That figure included 7,029 military members, 1,170 family and dependents of military members, 1,576 civilians, and 687 contractors who work with the Defense Department, according to Hope Hodge Seck of

COVID-19 hits Navy harder than other branches

The Navy has had more instances of COVID-19 than any other branch of the military, with at least 2,546 known cases as of June 5. The next worst-hit branch is the Army (1,815 cases), followed by the Army National Guard (1,373 cases), the Marine Corps (589 cases), and the Air Force (571 cases). There have been an additional 135 cases “among other elements,” according to Hope Hodge Seck of

15,221 veterans and VA staff test positive for coronavirus

More than 15,000 veterans and employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs had tested positive for the coronavirus as of June 5, according to Hope Hodge Seck of The VA has counted at least 1,326 veterans who’ve died from COVID-19.

Military museums close during state shutdowns

Military museums were forced to close after the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. The National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia shut down on March 14 and began offering online tours of its collections. A day later, all Navy museums closed until at least March 31. March 15 also marked the day that the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force closed indefinitely, according to Hope Seck of

Defense Department enters $2.2M contract to produce masks

The Department of Defense entered into a $2.2 million contract in late May with manufacturing company Hollingsworth & Vose, to produce personal protective equipment for the Department of Health and Human Services. The deal will help produce 3.1 million N95 respirators and 27.5 million ventilator filters for N95 masks every month beginning in August.

Navy sends hospital ship to Los Angeles

The Navy stationed USNS Mercy, a hospital ship, at the Port of Los Angeles on March 27 to provide relief for overwhelmed hospitals fighting COVID-19. After being stationed at the World Cruise Center Terminal and providing medical procedures to civilians, the ship departed on May 15.

Military members check symptoms through new online tool

The Defense Digital Service launched a COVID-19 symptom checker to provide specific feedback for military members and civilian personnel on May 4. The tool allows people to check potential COVID-19 symptoms and get an assessment, along with details on next steps they can take.

Navy sends hospital ship to New York City

In late March, the Navy stationed its hospital ship USNS Comfort at New York City’s Pier 90 to help ease the strain on the city’s health care system during the COVID-19 crisis. More than 110 medical procedures, including chest tube insertions, tracheotomies, and bronchoscopies, along with at least 540 X-rays and CT scans, were performed on the ship before it left in late April.

Blue Angels and Thunderbirds conduct flyovers in U.S.

The Navy and the Air Force sent their flight demonstration squadrons, the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, on a campaign of multi-city flyovers beginning in late April to show support for frontline responders. The series would include demonstrations over the cities hit hardest by COVID-19, including New York City, Chicago, and Detroit, every day or two until mid-May.

Pentagon issues travel bans for troops and families

In mid-March, Pentagon officials banned troops and their families from all domestic travel, to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. The ban included temporary assignments and duty station moves, but made exceptions for travel for medical reasons, according to Gina Harkins of

Defense Department labs test civilian samples for coronavirus

The Secretary of Defense issued approval for the use of military labs to conduct coronavirus testing on civilians on April 22. The measure would allow military labs to conduct up to 700 civilian tests per day through June 30.

Military collects plasma samples from recovered COVID-19 patients

Using the Armed Services Blood Program, the military began collecting 8,000 convalescent plasma samples from people who have recovered from COVID-19 on April 21. The effort would be used to help develop a treatment for the disease.

Navy investigates coronavirus outbreak on USS Theodore Roosevelt

On April 20, the Navy and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began investigating a COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The report, released in June, found that 60% of people who were tested had coronavirus antibodies, while nearly 20% of the exposed sailors were asymptomatic.

Military offers humanitarian aid to Italy during outbreak

The Department of Defense got authorization on April 20 to provide humanitarian support to Italy to help with the coronavirus relief efforts. Military staff would help transport medical equipment, provide supplies, lend manpower to humanitarian efforts, and offer telemedicine services to local hospitals and patients through June 5 at the latest.

Travel bans prevent military members from taking leave

Military-specific domestic travel bans from the pandemic made it difficult for service members to take their annual leave. On April 16, the Defense Department issued a memo announcing that impacted members would be allowed to accrue and retain up to 120 days of additional leave time during the pandemic.

Air Force uses isolation system for the first time

The Air Force’s Air Mobility Command aircrew used the Transport Isolation System for the first time ever to evacuate U.S. government contractors who had been infected by the coronavirus, from Afghanistan to Germany, in mid-April. The system helps isolate people with an infectious disease and allows patients to get in-flight medical care while minimizing exposure of aircrew, medical staff, and the airframe to the virus.

Military Aid Societies offer funds to affected families

Programs aimed at offering aid to military families created new programs to help them deal with the effects of the public health crisis, according to Rebecca Alwine of The Army Emergency Relief created a financial assistance program aimed at giving families money to buy children educational tools to help with remote schooling. The Navy-Marine Corps Relief began offering a COVID-19 rapid-response loan to provide a quick way for members to get emergency cash.

Army pauses basic training

The Army paused basic training for two weeks on April 6. The halt would allow the Army to provide controlled monitoring and make sure that proper procedures were being implemented to protect trainees.

Military mandates social distancing and use of masks

The Secretary of Defense issued new mandates on April 5 for people on all Defense Department properties, installations, and other facilities, that require them to stay at least 6 feet apart from one another. When social distancing isn’t possible, people on these properties are required to wear face coverings, according to the guidance.

Cruise ship passengers quarantined at military bases

Four facilities run by the Department of Defense provided housing for nearly 2,000 U.S. citizens who needed to be quarantined for two weeks after being relocated from the Grand Princess cruise ship in March. The ship had at least 21 suspected or confirmed cases of the virus, according to Richard Sisk of

Navy issues new deployment rules after COVID-19 outbreaks

New rules from the Navy released in late May now require service members to be sequestered for at least two weeks and undergo medical screenings before deployment. Once deployed, the personnel must also wear face masks, commit to frequent hand-washing, and avoid crowding, according to Gina Harkins of

Pentagon considers hazard pay for troops

As of late May, the Pentagon was considering compensating the tens of thousands of service members involved in COVID-19 relief efforts with hazard pay. The Department of Defense was also exploring the possibility of providing awards to individuals and units who offered support during the pandemic.

Naval Academy cancels in-person classes

The Naval Academy initially responded to the coronavirus by extending its spring break. In mid-March, classes were back in session, but the academy announced that all instruction would be conducted virtually for the rest of the semester.

Army General leads effort to develop COVID-19 vaccine

Four-star Army General Gustave Perna was appointed a co-leader of Operation Warp Speed in mid-May. He, along with former pharmaceutical executive Moncef Slaoui, were given the responsibility to drive forward the mission’s goal of developing and testing experimental coronavirus vaccines.

Army closes Arlington National Cemetery

In mid-March, the Army stopped allowing visitors to Arlington National Cemetery in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The cemetery’s website has provided virtual visitations for people who want to pay their respects.

Military events take place without families

Basic training and boot camp graduation ceremonies commenced without families in attendance during the pandemic. The Air Force stopped allowing relatives to attend recruit training graduations on March 10. Similar measures were taken shortly thereafter by the Navy, as well as the Marine Corps and Army, which both cancelled scheduled family day celebrations, according to Hope Seck of

Navy recruitment efforts go virtual

Navy recruiters took their efforts entirely online after the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S., according to Ben Werner of USNI News. The virtual recruitment will be used to help the Navy increase its staff by nearly 6,000 service members in fiscal year 2021.

Military hosts first Fleet Week

With stay-at-home orders still in effect in New York, the Navy, Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard took their annual Fleet Week online for the first time ever. The weeklong event, hosted May 20–26, allowed people to celebrate with the service members from the safety of their homes.

Pentagon bans most foreign visitors

International partners and visitors, as well as anyone who had recently traveled to a country with a coronavirus outbreak, were barred from entering the Pentagon in mid-March. The measure came after defense employees, dependents, and contractors had tested positive for the virus.

Air Force pauses physical fitness testing

The Air Force paused physical fitness testing in March to help airmen stay safe and avoid spreading COVID-19. It also stopped conducting the “tape test”—an unpopular height and weight test used to measure abdominal circumference. Both tests are suspended until Oct. 1, according to Oriana Pawlyk of

Department of Defense offers work from home

Active-duty and civilian personnel were allowed to work from home beginning in mid-March, as part of a broad effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Pentagon officials said in mid-May that they wouldn’t start reopening office spaces for at least a few weeks, according to Ben Werner of USNI News.

Military restricts access to and from nursing homes

During the public health crisis, the Pentagon has issued restrictions on access to Armed Forces Retirement Homes in Mississippi and Washington, D.C. Their residents, who are at high risk of getting a severe case of COVID-19 due to their age, were not allowed to leave, nor were they allowed to accept visitors, according to a June 1 report from WLOX.

Air Force brings 3.5M testing swabs from Italy

The Air Force completed seven missions to deliver testing swabs from Italy back to the U.S. between March 25 and April 2. The missions would provide the U.S. with 3.5 million testing swabs for the coronavirus.

Service members reenlist amid uncertainty

Across the military, increasing numbers of service members are deciding to reenlist rather than pursue other jobs or education during the pandemic, according to Lolita C. Baldor of the Associated Press. The Army had already surpassed its goal of retaining 50,000 soldiers in this fiscal year by early May.

Defense Department suspends many medical procedures

Like many states, the Defense Department postponed nonessential health care procedures like elective surgeries and some dental services at military-run medical and dental facilities after March 31. The initial ban was scheduled for 60 days.

Naval Academy hosts virtual graduation ceremony

The Naval Academy took its graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020 online for the first time ever in mid-May. It included a video with footage from five private swearing-in ceremonies the academy had held the week before, according to Selene San Felice of

Navy cancels homecoming plans for carrier

The Navy cancelled homecoming for thousands of sailors aboard the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group. They were scheduled to return from the Middle East to the East Coast in mid-April, but needed to stay at sea and be ready to respond to COVID-19 issues around the world, according to Gina Harkins of

Annual Marine rotation Down Under is delayed

With travel restrictions in place, the Marines were not able to move forward with their annual deployment to Australia as scheduled in April. The Secretary of Defense received an exemption on travel restrictions from the Australian government in May, but had yet to set new dates for the rotation, according to Shawn Snow of Marine Corps Times.

Air Force Academy scales down commissioning ceremony

In April, the Air Force Academy hosted a commissioning ceremony that was scaled down from its normal pomp and circumstance. Vice President Mike Pence was in attendance, but the stadium was empty and cadets were required to stay 6 feet apart from one another, according to Selene San Felice of

Military expedites graduation for medical and nursing students

Hundreds of medical students and nursing students from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences graduated early in late March to join the military and help with the COVID-19 response sooner. The students, who had studied emerging infectious diseases and other health threats, also skipped their graduation ceremonies.

Military families get stuck in ‘mid-move mess’

Military families who had packed up their items for shipment and planned to move got stuck in a “mid-move mess” after the military ceased permanent change-of-station moves during the pandemic, according to Rebecca Alwine of Networks of military spouses helped each other find organizations that could help them procure necessary items in the meantime.

Protests expose National Guardsman to coronavirus

After states called the National Guard to help with the protests in June, some National Guardsmen were exposed to the coronavirus. At least two service members from the Nebraska National Guard, which had provided assistance to police in Lincoln, tested positive for the virus.

Nearly 20,000 National Guardsman provide COVID-19 relief

Governors across the country received help from 19,700 National Guardsman by April 3 for their COVID-19 response. They distributed personal protective equipment, delivered meals, and helped at drive-through testing sites, among other efforts.

Sea Trials go online for Class of 2023

The Naval Academy’s Class of 2023 participated in online versions of Sea Trials, “a grueling set of tasks over 14 hours,” according to Heather Mongilio of The test was shortened to eight hours and included seven physical challenges that participants could complete at home.

Trust increases in the VA during the pandemic

During the pandemic, veterans’ trust in the care available at the Department of Veterans Affairs has hit a new high of 90%, according to outpatient surveys. It was an increase of five percentage points compared with scores in late 2017.

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Defense Department receives complaints related to COVID-19

A Defense Department hotline that allows members to report issues received around 150 complaints regarding improper use of protocols aimed at preventing COVID-19 between Feb. 26 and March 31, according to Hope Hodge Seck of The messages included complaints about leaders allegedly not practicing social distancing and health care workers not being protected.

Air Force delays uniform update requirements

The Air Force temporarily suspended efforts to switch service members from the Airman Battle Uniform to the Operational Camouflage Uniform in late May. The measure, which is set to expire in September, is intended to ease troops’ stress during the pandemic, according to Oriana Pawlyk of

Emergency room visits at veterans hospitals plummet

The Department of Veterans Affairs saw 42% fewer admissions to its medical centers for emergency care “in the first five weeks of the pandemic compared to the month before,” according to a report from researchers at New York University and Mount Sinai medical schools via The researchers expressed concern that veterans were not getting care for critical issues, possibly out of fear that they’d catch the coronavirus in the hospital.

Military postpones annual drills in South Korea

South Korean and American militaries postponed their joint drills, which usually occur annually, in February due to the pandemic, according to Hyung-jin Kim of the Associated Press. The cancellations came after one American service member stationed in South Korea and at least 22 South Korean military members tested positive for the coronavirus.

Military bans COVID-19 survivors from enlisting

A past COVID-19 diagnosis makes people ineligible from joining the military, according to a Military Entrance Processing Command memo. The memo states that a history of COVID-19 is a permanently disqualifying factor.

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