It’s now been a year since COVID-19 was first discovered. In the past 12 months, the virus has spread across the globe leading to an estimated 55 million cases and 1.3 million deaths. The effects of the virus have been felt in nearly every aspect of our lives here in the United States. But nothing about the virus is as obvious — or obnoxious — as the mask. It has become a symbol of the virus, and for better or worse, a tangible thing upon which to hang our hope, anger, frustration, and even our patriotism.

But whereas the American public can make the mask into a political issue, America’s service members don’t have a choice. 

DoD personnel have been donning masks since the outbreak. From generals to recruits, flight decks to graduation ceremonies, the mask has become part of military life, and therefore, part of the military uniform. 

At first, the mask guidelines were straightforward: keep it conservative. According to an April report by, each branch of the military had issued general guidelines on the appropriate wear of masks in uniform and directives on color and pattern. The guidelines stemmed from an April 5th memo from then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper who had mandated mask wearing for all DoD employees including military personnel, DoD civilians and contractors, and even family members.

The memo also stated that N95 and surgical masks — which were already in short supply by the end of March — would be reserved for medical personnel. The memo encouraged soldiers to “fashion face coverings from household items or common materials, such as clean T-shirts or other clean cloths that can cover the nose and mouth area.” 

Col. James Peckham, chief of staff, 1st Theater Sustainment Command (TSC), passes the guidon to Lt. Col. Brian Kibitlewski, incoming commander, Special Troops Battalion, 1st TSC, June 23, 2020, on Fort Knox, Ky. The change of command ceremony is rich with symbolism and heritage and celebrates the achievements of the outgoing commander while welcoming the incoming leadership to the command. (Spc. Kaylee Harris, 1st TSC Public Affairs)

Then other directives started trickling out. The Army forbade soldiers from fashioning masks from their uniforms. Guidance from the Air Force said that face coverings worn by uniformed military members should be “conservative, professional and in keeping with dignity and respect.” The Marine Corps approved neck gaiters and uniform green t-shirts for use but cautioned that “face coverings with demeaning or derogatory logos, profanity, racist, sexist, printed wording, eccentric designs, offensive script, wrongful drug abuse, dissident or protest activity, or imagery, are not authorized.”

Even the Special Forces got involved. 10th Special Forces Group stood up SOCRATES — or Special Operations COVID-19 Rapid Assessment, Treatment, and Emergency Support — repurposing a parachute rigger facility as a mask-making factory.

As the virus surged through the summer, DoD members continued to mask up. Whether you were a cadet graduating from West Point, an officer taking over a new command, or just a grunt on an obstacle course, your face was covered.