We don’t know how long COVID-19 will continue attacking our nation. We don’t know how long this disease, for which there is no vaccine or immunity, will disrupt and unnerve society. Nor do we have a clear picture when life will take even the first tentative steps back to “normal.”
But we do know America is counting on its military to play an important role and succeed in this unprecedented time. We will be tested against this adversary. Operations are surging at blistering rates across installations. More importantly, in order to win, we must be ready to change. Like always, the Air Force is adapting. We are innovating, we are focusing on being effective and successfully answering our nation’s call no matter what it requires or demands.
Just like the American spirit, our mentality in the military is always “can do,” never say quit, and never say you cannot complete your mission. That doesn’t change now, even though for this pandemic we don’t fully know the demands and the costs we must bear to achieve victory.
All we know is that new thinking, fresh thinking is required.
Why limit operational commanders to only the missions assigned to them? We know how to stand up joint task forces anywhere in the world, support government and non-government agencies for humanitarian response. We can even re-open and operate a devastated airfield from a folding table within hours of notification.
These skill sets and capabilities – logistics, communications, rapid response, among others – can be employed now.
In difficult times, the nation often looks to our military for comfort and inspiration, and a sense of action. This is not theory for me. As a squadron commander at Cannon Air Force Base, I had Airmen lining up to support relief efforts after Hurricane Michael devastated the Florida Panhandle in 2018. We didn’t focus on bureaucratic rule-sets such as “funding lines,” or “deployment bands” or “dwell time” because our fellow Airmen and the community needed our help. So we got to work, sent our best and made a difference.
But coronavirus is not a one-time natural disaster. To serve the nation in a pandemic, we also must take care of ourselves. We must come to the aid of our fellow Airmen to ensure that the Air Force is ready for the call.
That means physical and emotional support. It means thinking outside normal business rules and using every resource in our arsenal.
As our military continues fighting COVID-19, some units and individuals will be overwhelmed while others stand on the sidelines and wait out the storm despite the impulse to act. Some who want to rush to the coronavirus response are tied to equally critical operational assignments like our nuclear command and control; but others can – and will – support the fight. We’re seeing it today in the civilian world as orthopedic surgeons operate in emergency rooms, oncologists treat COVID patients. The Air Force equivalent finds intelligence analysts who are writing policy in staff positions deployed to a regional task force planning COVID-19 relief. As operations adjust to the existential threat, our military will continue to conduct business, as required, to protect us all.
The balance demands wisdom and leadership from commanders leading units operating at surge levels we have not experienced in decades. This time, they face the possibility of operating while members of their units become infected and others are quarantined.
When this happens, readiness can be degraded. Are we prepared to adapt and backfill a unit when one member becomes infected who was on shift with 20 others, forcing those 20 to be isolated as well? And who were those 20 exposed to, including their family? In addition to readiness, emotional strength can also be degraded, placing even more pressure on commanders.
Unfortunately, in times of war, we take losses. Sadly, there are casualties in this invisible war too. Chances are, most of us, if not all of us, will know somebody directly impacted by COVID-19 before this pandemic ends.
It’s a grim perspective, but critically important to remember during this difficult time. We must ensure we’re checking on each other to remain resilient. We must all prepare for the long-war ahead and expect hardship, even tragedies, to those we know or love. It’s going to be tough, but we will prevail because we’ll support each other through this as we always do. That is a hallmark of America’s psyche and it’s especially true in the military since it is the military that must always be ready to answer our nation’s call.
This is no vague concept. As a squadron commander supporting special operations forces, we never knew when the call would come to be forward deployed. But we knew it would come at some point, as it always does. I would tell my Airmen, “There is a lot you can’t control, so prepare for what you can. Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today, because you want to ensure you’re ready. Your family is ready, and your teammates are ready when the call comes.”
Now is not the time to tolerate slow processes and staffing procedures that stand in the way when our nation needs help the most. We’re at war. If units need assistance, ask for it. If they ask for it, we need to provide relief; everyone should be ready and willing to support those in need when called. It embodies something every Airman knows and accepts – “Ready today to fight tonight.” This is what we’ve all signed up for. We have faced insurmountable challenges before.
This may be a different adversary, but our military and our nation will rise to the occasion to prevail and protect our way of life. There is no measure to our resolve, but we must remain proactive and ready at all times to defeat this enemy. We must all be ready to answer our nation’s call.
Lt. Col. Choate is currently assigned to Headquarters Air Force, the Pentagon, Arlington, Va. in the Executive Action Group as a speechwriter for Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. He previously served as the Commander, 27th Special Operations Logistics Readiness Squadron, Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. and is a graduate of Army Command and General Staff College.