Virus strikes Coast Guard admiral, forcing top military brass to quarantine

WASHINGTON — Most of the Pentagon’s most senior military leaders are in home quarantine after the Coast Guard’s No. 2 officer tested positive for COVID-19, the Defense Department announced Tuesday.

Those quarantining include the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Army, Air Force, Navy and Space Force service chiefs; the head of the National Guard Bureau; and the head of Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, according to a defense official.

Coming four days after President Trump revealed that he had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, the Pentagon announcement underscored the devastating impact the virus is having at the very heart of the U.S. government’s national security power structure. It also came the same day news broke that a White House military aide who sometimes carries the briefcase containing nuclear launch codes also tested positive.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, walks to pay his respects as the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in state at National Statuary Hall in the US Capitol on September 25, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Erin Schaff/AFP via Getty Images)
Gen. Mark Milley at the Capitol to pay his respects to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 25. (Erin Schaff/AFP via Getty Images)

The catalyst for the latest blow was a positive test on Monday for Adm. Charles Ray, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, who had felt “mild symptoms” over the weekend, according to a Coast Guard statement. Ray is quarantining at home, and the Coast Guard is conducting contact tracing to ensure that any personnel who were in close contact with him also quarantine, the statement says.

But Ray had attended a series of meetings “with other senior leaders” last week at the Pentagon, Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. “All potential close contacts from these meetings are self-quarantining and have been tested this morning,” Hoffman said. “No Pentagon contacts have exhibited symptoms and we have no additional positive tests to report at this time.”

According to a defense official, those quarantining at home include Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. James McConville, Army chief of staff; Gen. Charles Brown, Air Force chief of staff; Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations; Gen. John Raymond, chief of space operations; Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau; and Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, director of the National Security Agency and head of U.S. Cyber Command.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley puts his face mask back on after a ceremony where U.S. President Donald Trump presented the Medal of Honor to U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Thomas P. Payne for conspicuous gallantry during a hostage rescue mission in Iraq, at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 11, 2020.  (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley at the White House on Sept. 11. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

As of Tuesday, the only member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was not quarantining was Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger. The commandant was “on travel all last week and not at the Pentagon,” Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Eric Flanagan told Yahoo News in an email.

In his statement, Hoffman appeared eager to play down the impact of having so many senior leaders working remotely at one time. “There is no change to the operational readiness or mission capability of the U.S. Armed Forces,” he said. “Senior military leaders are able to remain fully mission capable and perform their duties from an alternative work location.”

It is not clear how, where or when Ray contracted the virus, but together with the other chiefs he attended a White House event for Gold Star military families (those that have lost a military service member in the line of duty) on Sept. 27. The White House is the epicenter of an outbreak that has seen President Trump, first lady Melania Trump, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and two of her assistants test positive, as well as numerous other advisers and assistants to the president.

In addition, CNN reported Tuesday that a military aide who directly supports the president tested positive over the weekend, news that shone a light on the behind-the-scenes work performed by scores of military personnel at the White House.

U.S. President Donald Trump salutes Marine One helicopter pilots after returning to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 05, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump spent three days hospitalized for coronavirus. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
President Trump salutes Marine One helicopter pilots after returning to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Those jobs range from work in the White House Communications Agency, which ensures the president has all the communications links he needs wherever he travels, to staffing the White House Situation Room. A handful of officers attached to the White House Military Office take turns accompanying the president while carrying the so-called football briefcase that enables the president to launch a nuclear strike from wherever he happens to be. One of those aides, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jayna McCarron, has tested positive, as has one of the White House military valets, according to Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs.

The news that Ray had tested positive after meetings with the other Joint Chiefs means that the virus has struck the two buildings most associated with American power: the White House and the Pentagon.

“We are conducting additional contact tracing and taking appropriate precautions to protect the force and the mission,” said Hoffman, the Defense Department spokesman. He added that the senior leaders who were self-quarantining were doing so “out of an abundance of caution,” a phrase the Trump administration is having to employ with increasing frequency.


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