On March 25, 2020, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service released its final report to Congress, the President, and the American people. After more than two years of intensive study and analysis, the Commission delivered 118 recommendations that collectively provide a blueprint to elevate, advance, and increase Americans’ desire to serve their country and communities well into the future.
Almost surreptitiously, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront some of the most powerful and vivid examples of military, national, and public service that the Commission—through its recommendations—seeks to engender in every American. Today we bear witness to countless numbers of American medical professionals and first responders selflessly and courageously putting themselves at risk to serve their communities and their fellow Americans combating COVID-19.
Behind these brave frontline responders, Americans are seeing first hand the value of a strong all-volunteer force as members from all Services have been deployed domestically to combat COVID-19. Although the Department of Defense (DOD) is not the lead agency responsible for quelling this pandemic, it is playing a vital role in supporting courageous first responders—and the scope, scale, and complexity of this support is growing by the day. The efforts of the U.S. Military at the local, state, and national levels are having the positive effect of introducing average Americans to their fellow citizens who have chosen to serve in the Military. In a nefarious way, this pandemic is thus narrowing the civilian–military divide in our country, a chasm that started in 1973 when President Nixon ended the draft and that has grown every year since for the last 47 years. This divide is exacerbated by dwindling veteran populations from the World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War generations, whose shared military experience through conscripted service connected them to the broader American population. The good news is that today’s U.S. Military is the most professional and competent military in human history. The bad news is that less than 1%, in a country of over 330 million Americans, wear the cloth of the nation. The exigency of COVID-19 is closing this gap and connecting the U.S. Military to the American people it serves at a very local and personal level.
How the U.S. Military is Connecting to the American People
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
As of April 13, 2020, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has conducted 1,007 of 1,169 requested site assessments to field no fewer than 25,000 additional hospital beds across the nation, expanding medical capacity to treat not only coronavirus patients but also patients with everyday illnesses and injuries.
Similarly, the U.S. Navy hospital ships USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy are in New York City and Los Angeles, respectively, to expand medical capacity in these hot spots.
U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command
Less conspicuously, the U.S. Air Force’s Air Mobility Command (AMC) is operating around the clock, moving people and equipment in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to confront the virus and contain its spread. Simultaneously, it has built an effective international air bridge across the oceans to expedite supply chain management of personal protective equipment (PPE) from manufacturers to first responders on the front lines.
Air and Army National Guards
At the state and local levels, more than 30,000 Air and Army National Guard personnel have been mobilized across 34 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia to provide full-time, 24-hour staffing of state Emergency Operations Centers to synchronize National Guard efforts with local and state partners to plan and execute an effective response to the coronavirus. Guard personnel have also been supporting COVID test centers, the Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to expand medical capacity, and individual families in need by delivering food.
U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases
Virologists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, MD, are figuring out how COVID-19 spreads, and learning how it infects different lab animals. This information is vital to accurately test new vaccines and therapeutics against the virus. One of the Institute’s main tasks is to develop an animal model that can be used to test possible treatments before they reach human clinical trials. This kind of laboratory benchwork supporting vaccine development isn’t the most glamorous, but it’s the kind of work USAMRIID has been doing for years, and rarely has it been more important than today.
On March 25, 2020, the Army sent nearly 800,000 former soldiers an email to assess their interest in assisting with the coronavirus pandemic response. The call for volunteers listed a series of healthcare careers the Army is interested in, including critical care officers, various nursing specialties, and former medics. The volunteers would fill in for current Army medical personnel who have been sent to augment civilian hospitals and first responders. More than 17,000 people responded to the Army’s call for medical personnel, and human resources professionals are now sifting through those responses as they vet volunteers to help with the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. Northern Command
In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Northern Command announced on April 5, 2020, that it would send a combined total of 1,000 Army, Air Force, and Navy medical personnel to New York to help with the COVID-19 crisis. About 300 of those personnel are working in the Javits Center, a temporary hospital built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for COVID-19 patients in New York City. The rest of the personnel will deploy to other area locations to expand local medical capacity.
White House Coronavirus Task Force
Americans are seeing experienced leadership at the highest levels of government helping navigate our national response to this pandemic. In the Office of the Vice President, aiding in the whole of government response to COVID-19, two prominent personalities with distinguished military backgrounds have become household names for their leadership, knowledge, experience, and abilities.
Rear Admiral John Polowczyk
As Vice Director for Logistics (J4) on the Joint Staff, Rear Admiral John Polowczyk is directing strategic logistics to lessen the impact of the coronavirus. In addition to building the international air bridge, he is the architect of a highly effective supply distribution center for PPE and other critical supplies. Working across the myriad of organizations in the logistics community of interest, including the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Services, the Combatant Commands, the industrial base, and our multinational and interagency partners, he has fully integrated logistics planning and execution in support of FEMA to drive readiness and to maintain a comprehensive understanding of the current operational environment and to better prepare for the future environment.
Ambassador-at-Large Deborah L. Birx, M.D.
The President’s Coronavirus Response Coordinator is a retired U.S. Army colonel with more than 29 years of active and continuous service in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Ambassador Birx is a world-renowned medical expert and leader in the field of HIV/AIDS. Her three-decade-long career has focused on HIV/AIDS immunology, vaccine research, and global health. As an Army colonel, she brought together the Army, Navy, and Air Force in a new model of cooperation, increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the U.S. Military’s HIV/AIDS efforts through inter- and intra-agency collaboration. When she retired from the Army, she was well-known for her groundbreaking research, leadership, and cross-organizational management skills.
Amid this pandemic, it is too early to tell what the political, social, and economic outcomes will be from this national emergency. These realities are always relevant factors in one’s decision to serve the nation, especially in the Military. What is undeniable are the actions of those on the front lines combating the virus, actions that are sure to heighten awareness of different opportunities to serve and actions that will inspire many youth (and their influencers) to the calling of service. Time will tell if the Services garner any recruiting tailwinds from the positive public perception of DOD’s efforts to check the pandemic. In the spirit of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service’s work, the Military and other national and public service agencies should recognize that from this crisis comes an opportunity to advance the narrative and shape favorable outcomes. In concert with the Commission’s recommendations, they should begin assessing new and unique ways to attract the next generation of selfless servants who recognize the nobility of service to the nation, their states, and their local communities.
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Performance Director, Public and Military Service Recruitment