As America's combatant command for Europe with nearly 72,000 military members and civilian employees supporting its far-ranging missions, U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) has shouldered the daunting dual task of keeping its force healthy and mission ready, while fighting the global COVID-19 pandemic and assisting NATO Allies and partner nations.
With USEUCOM's command surgeon and his staff serving as the instrumental tip of that spear, maintaining the health of the command's Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coastguardsmen was paramount to ensuring the unflinching mission-capable, mission-ready state. As critical, time-sensitive missions like the Bomber Task Force continued to protect Allies and deter enemies, the system of support for the 51 nations spanning the USEUCOM theater of operations remained resilient and responsive during this unprecedented health crisis.
"Since we recognized the COVID-19 threat, we have been fighting a two-front war," said USEUCOM's command surgeon, U.S. Navy Capt. Dr. Mark Kobelja. "On one front, we've been battling to maintain the health and well-being of our military forces across the theater. On the other, we've been working closely with our Allies and partners to support those who needed assistance, working together to mitigate impacts of the pandemic."
Working closely with each of its service component counterparts, USEUCOM's command surgeon and staff oversaw the expansive efforts to safeguard the command's uniformed and civilian workforce, along with their families and the military bases’ host nation communities.
Beginning January 2020, the command surgeon and staff monitored the emerging threat and assessed the risk to USEUCOM’s forces and mission. As the outbreak grew to become a pandemic and an increasing threat to Europe, the team provided force health protection guidance to decrease the risk posed by the COVID-19 virus.
Crucially they ensured medical capabilities were in place and well-prepared to identify and care for COVID-19 patients, manage critical stocks of personal protective equipment (PPE) and introduce new laboratory testing capabilities across the region.
From a medical response perspective, USEUCOM also supported sister combatant commands, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command, safely transport COVID-19 patients from those theaters to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for treatment.
Today, as the threat of COVID-19 begins to lessen across Europe, USEUCOM’s command surgeon’s team is closely monitoring for a possible resurgence of the virus and advising leaders on how to maintain operational readiness, while being prepared to, once again, mitigate the pandemic’s impact.
"The health of the force was job number one for us," added U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Dr. Elizabeth Erickson, a senior leader within USEUCOM's command surgeon staff specialized in public health. "As this virus emerged, we took immediate steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by quickly and comprehensively ensuring that our forces adhered to recommendations and guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the European Center for Disease Control and host-nation health authorities."
Not least of those efforts was working across the entire organization -- from the four-star headquarters to individual tactical units in the field -- to establish protective measures including social distancing, wearing face coverings and self-isolation at the first signs of illness. Providing advice and counsel to directorates and combat units how to modify their business practices in this pandemic paradigm helped mitigate the virus’ spread through USEUCOM's ranks.
"There is no doubt that the world's collective experience as a result of this pandemic will indelibly alter the way we live and work in the future," said Kobelja. "For the military, I strongly believe that our ability to quickly adapt, adjust and overcome served us well in mitigating the negative impact that this virus could have had on our forces, our readiness and our overall capabilities to continue mission-essential work. We are, indeed, stronger and more prepared today thanks to our successes in fighting this virus."
As Allied and partner nations’ health systems have been confronted with increased demand generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, USEUCOM continues to deliver COVID-19 aid across Europe -- with nearly 23,000 disposable gloves, several ultrasound machines to help diagnose COVID-19 complications and more than $200,000 in PPE being donated to schools and hospitals across Albania, Kosovo, Latvia, Montenegro and North Macedonia in the next week alone. In coming weeks, more than $7 million dollars in PPE and medical equipment will be provided to Italy. This type of assistance from the U.S. continues to demonstrate America’s commitment to support Allies and partners through this challenging time.
As the command’s military medical professionals continued the important work of maintaining the health of the force, USEUCOM continued its operational priorities with additional Bomber Task Force missions over the Black Sea and the Arctic, while the large-scale annual maritime exercise, Baltic Operations (BALTOPS), kicks off in the Baltic Sea region on June 7 with 17 NATO and two partner nations participating in the 10-day exercise.
Global pandemic or not, the heart of USEUCOM's mission never skipped a beat.