It’s all hands-on deck in New York City after Mayor Bill de Blasio called for a national enlistment of doctors and medical workers to help ease strains on hospital staff in coronavirus hotspots. While this idea may seem unprecedented, it is not new. The United States has a standby plan for a ‘doctor draft’, formally known as the Health Care Personnel Delivery System. Whether we need to use it in the future may depend on the number of volunteers that step up to answer the call.
As a medical doctor and someone who has served as a volunteer firefighter/EMT, Brigadier General in the Army Reserve, and member of Congress, I know what it means to answer the call to serve. Recently called to duty as a member of the Army Reserve, I and thousands of public servants at all levels: military service members, and volunteers – are working to help stem the spread of this deadly virus. This is neither the war, the enemy, nor the terrain for which we train, but it is the fight we are in and a fight we must win. We call it a non-doctrinal mission; we also call it #KillTheVirus. Following a recent call for volunteers by the U.S. Army, over 25,000 military health care retirees indicated they would be willing to assist in the national response to the coronavirus outbreak.
As we come together to tackle the current challenge, we must consider ways to make America more prepared and resilient for future emergencies. We also need to ensure we inspire more Americans to answer the call to service if and when needed. Indeed, Congress created the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service to do just that. The Commission’s final recommendations, released to Congress, the president, and the American people last month, would strengthen all forms of service to address critical domestic and national security challenges.
Sustaining a qualified and capable military in time of crisis requires the enhancement of emergency voluntary mechanisms to engage men and women. The Commission’s recommendations include the creation of a critical skills Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). This capitalizes on the American spirit to rise to the occasion in times of crisis and maintains the draft as an option of last resort. A critical skills IRR would rebuild the military's strategic capacity, enabling non-prior service members and those leaving active or reserve service to receive certain incentives to be available in times of emergency, like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another Commission recommendation to enhance and expedite the integration of volunteers during a crisis is the creation of a national roster of individuals who indicate they would be willing to step up in the event of an emergency. A national roster is one way in which the government can build surge capacity to be ready when the next public health crisis or disaster strikes. Not knowing what skill we might need in the next emergency, the roster would allow the government to engage individuals ready to volunteer with critical skills such as health care professionals, or could be used more broadly to find laborers who can assist with debris removal in the event of a hurricane.
The beginning of the Soldier’s Creed is, ‘I serve the people of the United States and live the Army values.’ That is what soldiers are doing across the country right now, but we need more help. And we need to be better prepared for our future. I urge Congress and the president to consider the Commission’s recommendations to create a stronger culture of service in America and a more resilient nation in times of crisis. I know we, as Americans, can work together to not only be inspired and eager to serve but to better our country right now and #KillTheVirus.
Dr. Joe Heck is chairman of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. He is a brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserve and represented Nevada’s 3rd District in the House of Representatives from 2011-2017.