Top Enlisted Leader Wants to Arm Troops with the Facts in 'Unscripted' Chat

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Ramon Colon-Lopez speaks during an all hands in Stuttgart, Germany.
Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (SEAC) Ramon (CZ) Colon-Lopez speaks during an all hands meeting at Patch Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany, Feb. 27, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Deven Schultz)

The senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Thursday reiterated the Pentagon's stance that one of its top priorities is to communicate with troops and their families as often as possible on travel guidance, deployment schedules and other decisions during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

SEAC Ramon "CZ" Colon-Lopez said he will hold an "unscripted" Facebook Live chat with service members and their families next week to hear their concerns; he will then forward their feedback to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley.

"We're going to continue to make sure that we have the forums for not only the members but their families, for them to highlight their concerns," Colon-Lopez told reporters during a phone call Thursday.

"One thing that I can do from this position is just to make sure that they know they have a voice, and they know that they have support. The best thing that I can do for them right now is arm [them] with the facts" on day-to-day changes, he said.

Related: SecDef to Troops: Speak Up If You See Unsafe Procedures During Outbreak

Colon-Lopez joins leaders such as Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, as well as top brass in each branch, who have said rank-and-file troops may speak up if their units are doing something potentially unsafe during the COVID-19 outbreak, such as disregarding increased social distancing and teleworking options.

"The accountability clearly falls on the chain of command," he said. "We expect people to go ahead and execute the orders or the guidance provided by the Pentagon to make sure that they keep their people safe."

Colon-Lopez's comments came just a few hours before Reuters reported that the U.S. Navy had relieved Capt. Brett Crozier, commander of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, after a letter leaked in which he raised concerns about the health of his sailors.

Crozier made an urgent plea to evacuate his crew after cases of COVID-19 rapidly spread onboard the ship. The letter, obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, was posted on its website earlier this week.

Responding to the letter, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday reassured service members Wednesday that the Navy needs commanding officers to speak out about challenges during the unprecedented pandemic.

But on Thursday, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly fired Crozier, calling the leak of the letter -- not the letter itself -- an "uncharacteristic lack of judgment."

A spokesman for the SEAC's office did not return a request for comment about Crozier by press time.

Like other service leaders planning for mission trade-offs to try to keep their troops healthy during the pandemic, Colon-Lopez said the military must balance acceptable risks.

"We're going to keep looking for ways to make sure that we isolate cases [where we can]," he said.

When asked how this could impact morale among the ranks, Colon-Lopez said some troops inherently answer the call to put the mission before themselves.

"Morale is definitely very important because morale actually affects the effectiveness of the warrior out in the field," he said. But "my messaging has also been pretty clear that we do have a defense necessity -- that is the purpose of why we exist [for] this nation."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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