Senator Murray Blasts Defense Secretary Esper Over Defense Department’s Failure to Adequately Respond to COVID-19 Pandemic

(Washington, D.C.) – U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the top Democrat on the Senate health committee and a senior member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, joined nine of her Senate Democratic colleagues in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper expressing grave concern with the Department of Defense’s (DoD) failure to adequately respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in Washington state and across the globe.

“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,” Senator Murray said. “This failure has adversely affected morale, and, despite the Department’s best intentions, undermined readiness.”

In the letter, Senator Murray and her colleagues outlined examples of DoD’s slow and disjointed response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put servicemembers at risk and undermined military readiness. The senators criticized Secretary Esper for his unwillingness or inability to issue clear, Department-wide guidance, which has forced 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.

Senator Murray is grateful for the service of the thousands of military personnel stationed in Washignton state and all across the world in the midst of this pandemic, and in the letter the senators expressed concern about the toll that the pandemic and the DoD’s response is taking on servicemembers and their families, stating, “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.”

Senator Murray and her colleagues 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, which Senator Murray has previously pressed Secretary Esper to clarify.

“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.

The full letter can be found HERE.