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 Military.com, 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.”
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.
By September, the Army Uniform Board had added the Type II [Occupational Camouflage Pattern] Combat Cloth Face Covering to its standard clothing issue to all troops, including National Guard and Reserve soldiers. By early October, the Navy had issued guidance on mask wear that included six distinct NSNs (NATO Stock Number) for masks.
Cases within the DoD are surprisingly low. At the time of publishing, the DoD has reported a cumulative case count of only 102,666 since January; roughly 63 percent of these individuals have recovered. One hundred fourteen DoD members have died from the virus. In contrast, the United States has been recording over 100,000 new cases per day since early November. At the time of writing, the United States has recorded 11.4 million cases and over 248,000 deaths.
It would be flawed to draw hard conclusions from these figures. DoD personnel are more likely to be young, physically fit, and without underlying health conditions. On the other hand, submarines, ships, and other closed environments make it easier for the virus to spread, as was the case on the USS Roosevelt where 1,271 sailors tested positive for the virus during an outbreak on board.
A year in, there is no sign of the virus slowing, let alone going away. And neither will masks.
It’s safe to assume that masks will become a part of the military experience for a whole generation of soldiers. But how will that change the experience of the military?
Now that the mask is an issued item, will there be a manual on how to maintain it? What will comprise a mask inspection? Will the mask become a way to conceal a smirk in formation? Will soldiers be less likely to bond when socially distanced? Will they take their Drill Sergeant as seriously when he’s yelling orders through a neck gaiter?
Will there be different masks for different uniforms just like military headwear? Will a dress uniform include a tailored mask?
We don’t know what lies ahead. President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed has issued promising proclamations about when a vaccine will be ready. Eli Lilley, AstraZeneca, and others have touted strong results in recent vaccine tests. If all goes according to plan, OWS should be able to deliver a vaccine by the end of January next year. But no matter how you slice it, the mask has made a mark on military life.
Years from now, will service members look back on these difficult months when they lived, trained, and fought through masks?
Or will they still be wearing them?