200321-N-VU442-013

Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest forklift driver Steve King moves pallets of supplies to be craned aboard Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) at Naval Base San Diego, March 21. Mercy is preparing to deploy in support of the nation’s COVID-19 response efforts and will serve as a referral hospital for non-COVID-19 patients currently admitted to shore-based hospitals. This will allow shore-based hospitals to use their Intensive Care Units and ventilators for COVID-19 patients.

Since the COVID-19 crisis first threatened the United States earlier this year, the Defense Department has been at the forefront of America's fight against the pandemic, said Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper.

"We've been in it from day one, going back to late January, when I started taking reports on COVID-19," said Esper, during a press briefing yesterday at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. "If you recall, way back then, it was the Air Force. In fact, the Air Force Reserve, that opened up a base in California in late January to bring American citizens back from China to deal with it."

Since that time, Esper said, the department has opened more bases to take care of Americans who've been repatriated and taken to the streets to bring assistance directly to citizens.

"At one point, well over 45,000 guardsmen [were] out distributing supplies, setting up testing stations in nearly all 50 states and territories," he said. "[It's] just a remarkable effort by the active duty and mostly the Guard to do that. And now, of course, we're all in with regard to Operation Warp Speed and driving toward a therapeutic and a vaccine to get there."

America's soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, Esper said, continue to stand ready to provide support to the people of the United States in the fight against COVID-19.

"We've been there from day one. We've been ahead of the curve every step of the way. We will continue to be there," he said.

At Whiteman AFB, Esper also met with airmen and civilians to discuss issues related to diversity and equality within the department — something he said is critical to the department's strength.

Among the many issues discussed was finding ways to make the promotion process blind to both gender and race to avoid gender and race biases, he said.

"All those things we can do to get rid of things that might trigger conscious, more importantly, unconscious bias, I want to do to move forward," he said. "We need to be as meritocratic as possible in the military. That's our commitment. The military is very diverse. That's a strength of ours to be diverse. At the end of the day, it's all about improving cohesion, morale and readiness. And the more that we can have a diverse, inclusive force that everybody believes offers equal opportunity, the stronger we will be in defense of the American people."

Whiteman AFB, about 60 miles outside Kansas City, is home to the B-2 Spirit bomber, a wing-shaped stealth aircraft that’s operated at the installation by both the active duty 509th Bomb Wing and the Air National Guard's 131st Bomb Wing.

At Whiteman, Esper said, he was impressed with the multi-component cooperation he witnessed between the guard and active duty personnel to carry out the mission.

"As some of you know, I served in both active duty and the ... Army Guard," he said. "I've never seen integration like this. Its hand-in-glove relationship is seamless, and I'm very impressed by what I saw today. I've got to say the Air Force overall does this very well."

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