Wyden, Merkley Blast Defense Secretary Esper Over DoD’s Failure to Adequately Respond to COVID-19 Pandemic

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley today expressed grave concern with the Department of Defense’s (DoD) failure to adequately respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Civilian leadership of the Department has failed to act sufficiently quickly, and has often prioritized readiness at the expense of the health of servicemembers and their families,” Wyden and Merkley wrote with eight other senators in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. “This failure has adversely affected morale, and, despite the Department’s best intentions, undermined readiness.”

In their letter, the senators outlined DoD’s slow and disjointed response to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting servicemembers at risk and undermining military readiness. The senators criticized Secretary Esper for his unwillingness or inability to issue clear, Department-wide guidance, which has forced the armed services and local commanders to respond to outbreaks on a case-by-case basis. While some commanders have recognized the seriousness of the pandemic and taken aggressive action to prevent the spread of the virus within their commands, others reacted differently or were possibly prevented from taking a more proactive approach. The senators cited the outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt as the most prominent  example of these failures.

“Military families are expected to make remarkable sacrifices under ordinary circumstances, but this crisis is putting an enormous strain on the force—a strain made worse by your disjointed and installation-dependent approach to issuing guidance,” the senators continued.

The senators also raised concerns about the DoD’s continued deployment of active duty servicemembers to the southern border; recent comments by Secretary Esper that suggest a continued misunderstanding of the nature of and risks from COVID-19; and DoD’s decision not to share installation-specific COVID-19 outbreak and infection information.

“Immediate and aggressive guidance—from the top—is necessary to protect the health, morale, and readiness of servicemembers and their families,” the senators wrote. “You can and must do better and we hope that you will act quickly in this regard.”

To address their concerns, the senators asked Secretary Esper to answer a series of questions about DoD’s strategy for addressing the pandemic and requested a response to their inquiry by May 11, 2020.

Joining Wyden and Merkley on the letter were U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Kamala D. Harris, D-Calif., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Ed Markey, D-Mass.

A copy of the letter is available here.

A web version of this release is available here.