America’s men and women in uniform are playing a critical role alongside the nation’s health care professionals in our ongoing fight against the deadly coronavirus pandemic — and the recent strengthening of the U.S. military is one of the main reasons they’ve been able to respond so quickly and effectively.
Of course, this crisis has also been highly unusual for our armed forces — American soldiers are used to defending our country from tangible, not invisible, enemies. But even though this threat is different from others that we’ve seen in the past, the U.S. military rose to the challenge.
Any health care system can be overwhelmed by a sufficiently rapid surge of emergency hospitalizations. As we have learned from countries such as Italy, a sudden flood of coronavirus patients can create acute shortages of medical supplies, bed space and health care personnel, forcing doctors to decide which patients must receive attention first.
Facing the possibility of finding itself in a similar health care predicament, particularly in densely-populated metropolitan areas, the United States was able to avoid that fate by calling on a military that stood ready and able to provide critical, on-the-spot assistance.
In early April, the Department of Defense (DOD) deployed its two state-of-the-art Navy hospital ships to Los Angeles and New York, helping free up health care capacity in two of the nation’s most at-risk cities. In New York City, the DOD’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also established a temporary hospital at the Javits Convention Center capable of treating an impressive 2,500 patients.
The Javits Center conversion is merely the most high-profile example, though. The military has assessed hundreds of alternate medical facilities across the country, spearheading construction projects to reduce pressure on the local health care systems of hard-hit areas.
The Army Corps of Engineers alone has identified 1,129 sites for possible use as alternate medical facilities, issuing 32 construction contracts to add just under 15,000 hospital beds in states that needed help the most. The Corps visited Virginia in late March to assess the functionality of local hospitals amid the pandemic, evaluating dozens of sites for potential conversion into temporary medical facilities. Similarly, the Navy Seabees constructed temporary facilities in Guam.
In total, the president deployed more than 40,000 National Guard personnel and 15,000 members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help curb the spread of COVID-19 nationwide and to assist federal agencies such as FEMA, HHS and DHS with interagency efforts to fight the coronavirus. And when the hospital ships USNS Comfort and Mercy were not used at capacity, their embarked medical personnel were redeployed to assist at other hospitals and surge facilities.
Active and reserve military medical staff similarly supported local hospital COVID-19 response, as did a host of retired military medical volunteers. Concomitantly, Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals either assisted or made themselves available to local civilian hospital COVID-19 response needs.
This rapid and effective mobilization would not have been possible without the efforts this administration has taken over the past three years to rebuild and revitalize our country’s military. The National Defense Authorization Act that President Trump signed into law last December provided the armed forces with the support that the Washington establishment has denied them for decades — support that gave them the opportunity to respond to this national medical crisis.
“The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act is about making sure our warfighters have the tools, resources, and equipment you need to fight and to win — all the time, to win,” the commander-in-chief said at that signing. “We’re making our military stronger and more powerful than ever before.”
In addition to much-needed investments in our existing assets and forces, the Trump administration spearheaded the most significant expansion of our nation’s military capabilities in a generation — expansion that included the creation of the forward-looking U.S. Space Force.
Veterans, too, have benefited greatly after suffering under the negligence of the previous administration. Inheriting a Department of Veterans Affairs that was putting our nation’s veterans at risk while they waited months for routine care, President Trump quickly implemented sweeping reforms that have transformed the VA and given veterans much more control over their own health care and the health care they need and deserve.
All of these efforts have given our U.S. military the resources and flexibility that it needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and help prevent health care shortages across America. Nobody could have predicted that we would need to call upon the armed forces to help us in this way — that’s why the commander-in-chief wisely made sure they are prepared and ready for a wide range of contingencies, including a deadly pandemic.
• Don Loren, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Homeland Security Integration and as an assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs.
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