Pentagon’s demands hinder COVID-19 response

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The past year has been incredibly difficult for our country. Millions have faced personal battles with COVID-19, to which hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their lives. On top of that, millions of Americans have lost their jobs and livelihoods, left wondering about how they are going to financially support themselves and their families.

Locally, COVID-19 has had devastating effects. Over 654,000 Michiganders have contracted the virus, to which 16,601 have fallen victim. At the end of 2020, over 4.3 million Michiganders were without jobs.

I’ve seen military conflict firsthand, and though it implies a trauma of a different sort, the past year’s battles with COVID-19 have inflicted ordinary Americans with trauma all the same.

We’re in an ongoing crisis, yet the federal government has floundered in its response, further hindered by the Pentagon’s need to center itself amid this travesty. Given the scope of the issue at hand and the national security threats at play, there is certainly a role for the Defense Department to play — but that role currently needs revising. In tackling COVID-19, it is essential that our lawmakers and the federal government alike bring accountability to the Department of Defense.

At present, COVID-19 should be our federal government’s main priority. We are incapable of effectively resolving all other issues that plague our nation until we deal with this virus. As protectors of national security and bolsterers of the executive branch and legislature, the Pentagon should share in these priorities — yet in September of last year, they were caught funneling taxpayer money meant for masks and swabs to their contractors, who made jet engine parts and body armor instead.

There is no justification for the reckless squandering of taxpayer dollars amid one of the greatest tragedies the American people will have to endure. In order to institute the reform necessary at the Pentagon, the federal government must implement increased transparency and oversight measures in government spending, especially as it relates to emergency funds. 

This reckless spending brings to light another issue: the inherently problematic relationship between the Pentagon and its private contractors. For years, the Pentagon has maintained a revolving door between itself and private industry. An independent government watchdog, the Project On Government Oversight, found that since 2008, 42 senior defense officials have gone on to work for the nation’s largest defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, within two years of leaving their public service post.

This ever-revolving door lays the foundation for a multitude of conflicts of interest. There is no room within national security decision-making for the influence of former employers, clients or acquaintances.

But ultimately, as long as the issue of the Pentagon’s exorbitant budget remains, this door will keep spinning, further compromising the U.S.’s ability to be able to adequately respond to COVID-19. To put it into perspective, the current COVID-19 relief bill being debated in Congress carries a price of $1.9 trillion; the Pentagon’s total 2020 budget was $1.2 trillion.

What could possibly be the justification for such a large budget? It is hard to perceive how jet engine parts, body armor, submarine missile tubes, space launch facilities and golf course staffing might be helpful in fighting the pandemic in the United States. It is even more difficult to understand how those things are actively making the United States safer, when a multitude of both international and domestic threats still persist.

Change — real change — is demanded of the Department of Defense. Current and former service men and women like myself can lay the groundwork for reconciliation by acknowledging this need, but ultimately, Congress must do the real work to address the depth of corruption present at the Pentagon — and the solutions needed to conquer it.

The Pentagon’s power should not hinder our country’s response to COVID-19 or any other crisis. 

Grand Rapids resident Michael Tuffelmire is a United States Army combat veteran (Infantry 10th Mountain Dvision) having served in both Kosovo and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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