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Defense Secretary Esper On Helping With U.S. Coronavirus Response


The Pentagon is sending field hospitals to New York and Seattle and also hospital ships to New York and Los Angeles. Like so many government agencies, the Defense Department is now focused on fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke this afternoon with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep. And our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us with more on that conversation.

And, Tom, what did Secretary Esper have to say about the Pentagon response to the coronavirus?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, first of all, he pointed out that the main job of the active military is to protect the health of service members so they can protect the nation, including fighting and winning the nation's wars. He also said that the active military has a role to play in helping government during this pandemic. Let's listen.

MARK ESPER: We have a lot of capability - not as much, I think, as many people think when it comes to medical capacity. But that said, we want to put everything on the table we can to support the American people and help get beyond this.

BOWMAN: So again, the medical capacity, like those field hospitals and medical ships - but he stressed that the National Guard really is on the front line here, Ari. That's a job for these citizen soldiers. About 9,000 of the guardsmen are now working for their governors around the country. They're adding about 1,000 each week to that effort, but other officials say the Pentagon is ramping up to help in other ways.

SHAPIRO: So beyond the hospitals and the mobilization of the National Guard, what more can we expect from the Pentagon?

BOWMAN: Right. Well, what they're doing is - we know - we heard from a senior Pentagon official, Ellen Lord, today, who said they're working with the defense industry to come up with those needed medical supplies we've been hearing about, like the masks and gloves, ventilators, respirators. And officials say that once Congress passes a stimulus bill, there'll be billions of dollars set aside so these industries can move forward.

They hope to have more detail in the coming days about that. But it's clear that some of these items, like gloves and masks, can be produced fairly quickly. Those other items, like test kits, respirators, will take a bit longer - maybe a couple of months.

But again, getting back to Secretary Esper, he said he is, first and foremost, focused on the active-duty force, making sure they're ready for conflict. Here he is again.

ESPER: We have to preserve some capacity to take care of the force, and I need to make sure I retain some capacity for a deployable force in case we get in some type of conflict somewhere. I got to be able to not only deploy military capabilities that can conduct operations but then also field hospitals that can treat casualties coming off the battlefield.

BOWMAN: And another thing Secretary Esper said is he's not sure how this virus will affect the security environment in other countries. In the coming months, there could be governments that fall, violence in some of the major cities. That's something a defense secretary has to watch.

SHAPIRO: There have been cases of the coronavirus within the military. How bad is the spread of the disease among the armed forces?

BOWMAN: Well, they're saying swift action by the U.S. commander in South Korea, Gen. Robert Abrams, helped stop the virus in its tracks for soldiers under his command. He basically shut down the base for, you know, 28,000 soldiers. And Secretary Esper said the Pentagon learned from that. Here he is again.

ESPER: We've been able to put a brake on the spread, at this point in time, of the hundreds of thousands of military persons out there. We have - thank goodness - only 227 cases right now. It's 227 more than I would prefer to have, and I've been able to call up and talk to a few of those service members. But I think the policies and practices we put in place have held us in good stead right now.

BOWMAN: And to better protect that active force, the secretary, tonight, said he was halting all overseas travel for all troops for up to 60 days. Ari, that's expected to impact up to 90,000 service members who were slated to deploy or redeploy in the next two months, again, to make sure they're healthy. Now we're told some of the troops may be coming back from Afghanistan, but others overseas may be extended for a time.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tom Bowman, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.

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