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Defense Secretary Esper stands beside World War II veterans without a mask

May 09. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Alex Horton, Adriana Usero · NATIONAL, HEALTH, WHITEHOUSE

President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper gathered with World War II veterans in Washington on Friday to mark the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe.

Trump greeted a rank of seven veterans one by one from a distance of a few feet, apparently mindful of coronavirus concerns but not wearing a mask, a White House television pool video of the event shows.

Esper, also maskless, gathered with a few of the men for a photo a few minutes earlier and handed out "challenge coins" from his pocket. At one point, a veteran grasped his elbow.

The veterans ranged in age between 96 and 100, the Associated Press reported. Older people are at particular risk of illness and death if they contract the coronavirus, with 80 percent of U.S. deaths recorded for people over the age of 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Esper and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, also in attendance, should have worn masks and kept distant at all times, said Kristofer Goldsmith, the associate director of policy and government affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America. Trump's aides should model behavior "that keeps veterans and elderly Americans safe," he said.

"What they're doing right now is going to get people killed," Goldsmith said.

In response to questions about the event, the White House said, "Leave it to the media to question seven brave war heroes for joining the President of the United States at the Nation's World War II Memorial on the 75th Anniversary of V-E Day."

"As young men, these heroes stared evil in the eyes and liberated nations - no pandemic stopped them from joining their Commander in Chief for this momentous occasion," White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.

The veterans in attendance were "choosing nation over self," Deere said in an apparent defense of the health risks, according to the AP. The White House did not clarify those statements. The veterans were tested before arrival, a White House official said.

Esper and Wilkie join other administration officials who have appeared in public without masks, including Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who was criticized for not wearing a mask at the Mayo Clinic and later acknowledged he should have.

Esper appeared to take uneven precautions during the event. He elbow bumped one veteran as a greeting, only after the veteran offered first. At other times, he appeared to keep a distance. But the photo opportunity put him within inches of a veteran.

The Pentagon has mandated the wearing of masks for service members, agency employees and family on Defense Department grounds.

The event was coordinated by the White House, according to a Pentagon spokesperson. Esper was tested as recently as Friday morning, with a negative result, and the event was mostly conducted with participants six feet apart, the spokesperson said.

The veterans traveled from around the country to be in attendance, the AP reported.

The Greatest Generations Foundation, which helps veterans visit battlefields where they fought, was involved in coordinating attendance, director Timothy Davis told the AP.

"Of course, we presented to them the risk we are facing," Davis told AP, adding that the veterans asked to hold the event. "They said, 'It doesn't matter, Tim.' "

The group did not return a request for comment from The Washington Post.

The Pentagon referred questions about the event to Friends of the World War II Memorial, which it said was the organizer of the event. But the nonprofit group, which is dedicated to preserving history, was not involved and has partnered with the Defense Department only on prerecorded video projects featuring World War II veterans, according to Holly Rotondi, the chief executive.

The group has opted to call veterans and interview them on video remotely because of coronavirus concerns, Rotondi said.

"We take the safety of our World War II veterans very seriously," she said. "Of course the risk is too great to put their health in jeopardy."

Wilkie stood shoulder to shoulder with another veteran, also without a mask. His spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

At least 828 veterans have died of covid-19 as of Friday, according to VA data. The agency has stopped providing any information on the ages of veterans who have died at its hospitals.

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