By Sandi Gohn

The novel coronavirus, officially called COVID-19, looks like it’s here to stay.

Covid-19. | Photo credit NIAID/RML

The virus, which initially broke out in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, has since spread to dozens of countries on every continent except Antarctica and has infected tens of thousands of people around the world, including a U.S. service member in South Korea.

As the disease teeters on the edge of becoming a global pandemic, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley stressed on March 2 that the current overall impact on the U.S. military has been minimal and our Armed Forces are prepared.

“We’ve got lots of capabilities, medical capabilities, housing and so on and so forth that, if required and directed by the secretary of defense, we will do our part,” Milley said during a Pentagon news briefing.  

Still, that’s not to say the global U.S. military community has seen no impact from the COVID-19 outbreak.

Stateside, Army recruits are being screened for coronavirus and military scientists are working hard to develop a vaccine.

Overseas, it’s a different story.

COVID-19 and U.S. Service Members in South Korea

In South Korea, where there is the highest number of coronavirus cases outside of China, the U.S. military has agreed to postpone its annual joint exercises on the peninsula.

Additionally, after an outbreak of coronavirus cases in the nearby community, U.S. Army Garrison Daegu (where USO Camp Walker is located) has implemented a series of precautionary measures, including restricting non-essential off-base access, limiting the size of gatherings (20 or fewer people), canceling programs and events and closing on-base schools and day cares.

That’s why, on March 4, USO Camp Walker hosted a free Frito-pie lunch for military families near their housing facilities.

“We are so grateful to our USO family,” said Amanda Lee McKeown, a military spouse. “They flew in like superheroes, rescuing us from all the base closures that have been bringing us down. This brought such big smiles all around! We felt some normalcy return, and that felt wonderful.”

Service members load bar-b-que supplies from the USO. | Photo credit USO Camp Walker

On other parts of the base, commands have taken it upon themselves to create morale-boosting opportunities within the base restrictions, like small team barbecues. On March 6, USO Camp Walker stepped in to provide all the items for one unit’s cookout and also passed along personal hygiene items, USO snack packs and a case of apples.

Additionally, last week, at the request of the base, USO Camp Walker staffers provided bottled water, chips, cookies, sodas and granola bars to military personnel to be delivered to the quarantine facility on-base.

USO staffers collect items on Camp Walker to be delivered to the quarantine area by base personnel. | Photo credit USO Camp Walker

On U.S. bases in other parts of South Korea, there are similar measures in place, prompting USO staffers to use innovative methods to continue serving the military community.

On Osan Air Base, USO staffers have been working to adjust programming, and announced plans to transform upcoming group food programming events to a take-out style event instead.

That way, they can still serve the military community while also limiting person-to-person contact.

COVID-19 and U.S. Service Members in Italy

Across the globe in Italy, U.S. military families stationed in the northern part of the country near Vicenza are also facing a series of precautionary measures, including a second week of school closures, as well as day care and other base amenity closures.

Additionally, according to CNN, the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet, which primarily operates around Europe and Africa, announced on March 4 that it plans to enforce a new, 14-day quarantine on ships between port calls in Europe due to the spread of coronavirus.

Resilient military families in northern Italy are finding ways to keep busy, with many military children using digital learning tools to keep up with their studies.

Still, in response to these precautionary measures, and at the request of local military leadership, the USO Vicenza center has been closed since February 24 and will be closed until March 10, unless otherwise directed by the base.

COVID-19 and U.S. Service Members in Other Parts of the World

While the U.S. military has seen the greatest impact from COVID-19 in Italy and South Korea, personnel in other parts of the world have also had to pivot due to the outbreak.

In February, several stateside military bases had to work with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to host hundreds of U.S. citizens and residents who were held in quarantine after overseas travel. Many of these people have now completed their mandatory quarantines.

Currently, in other locations in the world, military and USO personnel are preparing, just in case the outbreak reaches them.

Across Southwest Asia, the USO is pre-positioning supplies and working with military leadership to support USO-sponsored morale areas in case of a need for quarantine arrises on base.

Supplies include TVs, movies to watch and other items to help those who might be potentially quarantined in the future occupied and entertained.

As the COVID-19 situation in South Korea, Italy and other parts of the world changes daily, the USO is committed to working with military leaders to continue to find innovative ways to safely serve U.S. service members and their families.