"Why are we letting the Air Force cadets graduate, basic military training continue and waivers for TDYs — but deployed members are unable to rotate home?"
"When is the decision going to be made about the 82nd Airborne's 1BCT extension?"
During a virtual town hall with senior Department of Defense leadership on Thursday, service members and family members called attention to one of the various measures DoD has put in place to attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus — the extension of duty tours for service members deployed overseas.
Service members and their families wanted to know why these decisions have kept troops separated from family members indefinitely while training pipelines and stateside operations continue.
As for training pipelines, the short answer is to "feed the machine of the services."
"We have to maintain a balance between the lethality of our force and readiness and also the safety of our people," Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramón Colón-López said. "The service secretaries ended up agreeing to go ahead and take a pause in training and to go ahead and reassess the safest way to continue to feed the machine of the services."
Colón-López is not alone in these sentiments. Senior officials from the Pentagon have been adamant that any disruption to the training pipeline at any level would have an impact on readiness levels for years to come. While every branch has now implemented some sort of mitigation measures to its basic training pipeline — a two-week pause, virtual recruiting, additional screening, or new locations — the pipelines remain open.
But these exceptions to the DoD stop-movement order — currently in place until May 11 — are not extending to deployed service members ready to come home.
“The COVID crisis came upon us midstream,” Gen. Mark Milley said in response to the question about the 82nd Airborne.
Specifically regarding the deployed members of the 82nd Airborne, Milley explained that it's not just COVID-19 keeping these troops deployed — it's a lingering national security threat.
“We redeployed one of the maneuver battalions but the remainder of the brigade task force combat team has stayed there, in part of the COVID crisis but also in part because the situation with the Shia militia groups and Iran...has not 100 % settled down.”
Close to 4,000 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne were rapidly deployed in the late days of December 2019 and the early days of January 2020 in response to rising tensions in the Middle East. In late February, 800 of those troops returned home to Fort Bragg.
The remaining soldiers have not. Many of these service members were notified less than 24 hours before they deployed.
“We are monitoring — almost daily, actually — to determine exactly when to bring them home. The secretary is very keen on bringing them home," Milley said.
As of Thursday morning, the Department of Defense had 3,132 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the force. This includes eight deaths.