The phrase “black swan” refers to an event that massively disrupts circumstances for an unprepared organization or society. People who worry about these kinds of events professionally often put pandemics in the black swan category, but others say a pandemic of the nature of Coronavirus (COVID-19) has been a long time coming. A “gray rhino” event is a predictable, highly-probable event that people fail to prepare for, despite its inevitability.
The chattering classes can debate whether COVID-19 is a black swan or a gray rhino. For many military families, this semantic nuance doesn’t change the fact that their already-unpredictable lives are being turned upside down.
PCS Moves Halted
President Trump addressed the nation about COVID-19 on March 12th, announcing a European travel ban. Not long afterward, the Secretary of Defense put out a memorandum clarifying what the travel ban means for military families.
The 60 day travel ban, which began March 13th, prohibits military families, servicemembers, and DoD Civilians from traveling to and from what the Center for Disease Control (CDC) terms “Level 3” countries (this includes personal and non-official travel for servicemembers). Those countries include common PCS and TDY destinations like Germany, South Korea, and Belgium. Check here for updates on CDC guidance for travel, and a list of Level 2 and 3 countries.
As of this writing, OCONUS moves to Alaska and Hawaii are not affected by the travel ban.
Updated: After this piece was published the DOD released a memo that placed a total domestic stop movement and ban on military personnel. Military dependents can still travel freely throughout the United States except on government orders or any type of government funded travel.
Some Exceptions Apply
The Secretary’s memo has some provisions for cases, including mission essential travel, necessary travel for humanitarian reasons, and occasions where travel is “warranted due to extreme hardship.”
The memo provides no concrete guidance regarding deployments and re-deployments or returns from TDYs to Level 2 and Level 3 countries.
Follow along here for updates from the DoD on Coronavirus.
Military Families in Quarantine in Europe and the Pacific
US military families in Italy, currently in quarantine and dealing with weeks of school closure, face a potential additional two weeks of quarantine upon their return to the US. There were families who had already begun the process of returning to the US, who had sent off their household goods and cars, and were staying in hotels waiting to head stateside.
Even the commanding general of US Army Europe is under self-quarantine for possible COVID-19 exposure.
Mail for military members and their families in Italy was disrupted, as well. Once mail services were restored, individuals were encouraged to wait in line three feet apart for “social distancing.”
The current quarantine in Italy for military families is set to last until May.
Military families in South Korea are impacted, as well. A striking example from recent church services at the Army garrison in Daegu is illustrative. Services were held outside, the faithful sitting in sparsely distributed folding chairs, again in the name of social distancing.
“In addition to spring sidewalk sales, DeCA is cancelling in-store product demonstrations, which includes DeCA’s free coffee program; group tours; vendor-sponsored events; new CLICK2GO celebrations; and Month of the Military Child activities such as store tours and coloring contests. This year’s Scholarships for Military Children recipients will receive their awards but without public ceremonies.
The agency is also postponing Vietnam War-era veterans’ recognition ceremonies; and effective March 16, and until further notice, all agency meetings with its industry partners – will be done electronically through teleconference or WebEx.”
Milestones and Public Ceremonies Halted; Education Affected
Proud parents, friends, significant others, and relatives are missing out on important milestones in their servicemember’s life as a result of COVID-19. Basic training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) graduations are being canceled to prevent the spread of the virus.
Coronavirus and GI Bill
GI Bill recipients are impacted by the ongoing school closures at colleges and universities across the country. On March 11th, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee introduced legislation and the House Veterans Affairs Committee introduced companion legislation to protect GI Bill recipients. Since the current GI Bill determines benefits based on whether beneficiaries physically attend courses at a brick-and-mortar institution or remotely via the Internet, veterans and their families stand to lose or receive less if their school switches to online instruction in the wake of the virus.
The Impact on the States: National Guard and Military Bases
On the East Coast, National Guard families are seeing their servicemembers activated to help with the COVID-19 response. In New York, the governor has deployed the National Guard in a containment zone in New Rochelle, to clean public spaces and to deliver food to quarantined residents.
In California, on the other side of the country, military bases are being set up as quarantine containment zones for people returning from cruises.
Existing (though previously rarely-used) quarantine laws give government powers that could mean more states will likely call up their state’s National Guard as part of their COVID-19 response.
A Sweeping Response During a Challenging Time
Military families are not strangers to sacrifice in the name of duty, honor, and country. Current shared, common sacrifices across the nation unify all Americans in facing off a unique threat to the common good. That doesn’t make the additional hardships military families confront in the era of COVID-19 any easier, but regularly checking with the servicemember’s chain of command and other official sources of information such as the Department of Defense, the State Department, and the Center for Disease Control as events unfold should help dispel confusion and prevent unnecessary anxiety for military families.
By: Maggie Phillips
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