U.S. Northern Command troops are back in the bunker under Cheyenne Mountain as they fight a nationwide battle against coronavirus while trying to keep their distance in Colorado Springs, Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy said Tuesday.
It’s the first time in 14 years the command has put the mountain into full-time use.
Rather than needing the security of a half mile of granite overhead, troops need the extra office space the man-made cavern provides as they spread out from the close confines of the newer basement command center at Peterson Air Force Base. But the symbolism of the bunker designed to weather World War III might be appropriate as President Donald Trump talks of war against the respiratory disease.
“He has declared a war on COVID-19, and we’re treating it like a military campaign,” O’Shaughnessy said in a teleconference.
Northern Command is responsible for keeping North America safe from enemy attacks and also provides Pentagon assistance to local authorities in emergencies and disasters. It became one of the early government agencies to wrestle with coronavirus, offering up military quarantine sites for Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China — where the virus originated — two months ago.
In those two months, the command has provided help to sickened cruise ship passengers, parceled out supplies to fight the virus and dispatched hospital ships to New York City and Los Angeles.
In recent days, the command has set up makeshift hospitals in Dallas, New Orleans and Seattle. One of the units called up by the command is a Fort Carson field hospital that has moved into a Seattle football stadium.
Now the command is marshaling more help for embattled New York, sending National Guard and reserve medical troops directly into the city’s hospitals to help out while readying medical assistance for New Jersey and Connecticut.
“If we wait until hospitals are overwhelmed, then we are too late,” O’Shaughnessy said.
O’Shaughnessy, an Air Force Academy graduate, took command of Northern Command and the binational North American Aerospace Defense Command in 2018. The command has sent troops to help Border Patrol agents and deployed troops to help hurricane-ravaged communities under his watch.
But coronavirus is unlike anything the command has faced since it was established in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, O’Shaughnessy said.
“One thing that’s different about our response to this request for assistance is we are right in the middle of it,” he said.
That means troops in Colorado Springs have to worry about keeping themselves and their families healthy even as they attack the virus in America’s coastal cities. For Northern Command, that’s meant sending nonessential troops and civilian workers home while those who stay at Peterson and in Cheyenne Mountain spread out to deter transmission of the virus, which had sickened more than 5,400 people in Colorado as of Tuesday.
“It’s a very different dynamic,” O’Shaughnessy said.
The general said the stay-at-home order issued by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has allowed his troops more safety in the Pikes Peak region as they fight the disease.
Staying at home has also thwarted some of the command’s plans.
In New York and Seattle, the general said, military hospital units were sent to ease an anticipated demand in trauma care that hospitals dealing with coronavirus patients wouldn’t be able to meet. But with people in those cities staying at home, there are far fewer car wrecks, workplace injuries and other maladies.
In Seattle, there’s has been so little demand for trauma care that leaders are reexamining how to use the makeshift military hospital Fort Carson troops built there, he said.
At the same time, O’Shaughnessy’s planners are trying to get ahead of the disease, determining which places could require military help next.
“We want to be there before the need,” he said.
While the general is in charge of offering military help, he’s not in charge. Instead, the command works under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, answering requests for help sent by a FEMA coordination center that works with state and local governments.
“We continue to work with FEMA to determine where the next area of response will be,” he said.
Hurricanes can devastate a region, but coronavirus keeps moving and doesn’t weaken when it heads inland.
O’Shaughnessy said the command is readying for a long haul.
“We will have individual peaks in different cities and different locales that we will have to address in the coming months,” he said.
Meanwhile, the general wants you to stay at home, wash your hands and put on a mask if you need to shop. Fewer sick people means a lighter burden for his troops, and O’Shaughnessy has seen the results that staying at home delivers.
“There is no question it is saving thousands and thousands of lives,” he said.
And staying home in Colorado Springs helps the command’s troops who must meet the nation’s needs, he said.
“We are ready to respond, and the only reason we are ready to respond is because of the great support we get from this community,” he said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240