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Our collective responsibility during COVID-19, the importance of obeying lawful orders

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Hawar Sabir
  • 19th Airlift Wing Judge Advocate

In America, today, we are amid an unprecedented public health crisis, which is calling upon all of us to come together as a community to combat COVID-19. As of April 6, 2020, over 8,000 Americans have lost their lives to the novel COVID-19 virus. The latest projections from the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force predict between 1.5 - 2.2 million deaths in the United States if proper mitigation systems are not implemented to combat COVID-19 such as social distancing, staying at home while sick, and washing hands. However, if proper mitigation systems are implemented, the predicted total deaths in the U.S. deceases substantially to 100,000 - 240,000 from COVID-19. Therefore, it will be critical that as a collective, we all play our part in combating COVID-19.

At Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, wing leadership across the installation has unified together to protect personnel, mission capability, and to limit the spread of COVID-19. In an open letter to all LRAFB personnel, wing leadership directed personnel to restrict their travels to their place of duty; grocery stores; gas stations; pharmacies; and/or to the medical facility for medical treatment. Similarly, across the U.S., all Americans are being asked to make changes to their daily lives. “More than half of U.S. states have imposed lockdown measures restricting gathering and social contact . . .” impacting more than 100 million people.

On March 16, Deputy Secretary of Defense, David Norquist, placed into effect a stop movement for the military community as means to preserving force readiness and protecting the health and welfare of the service community. The order limited inter alia service members ability to travel; permitting only travel within the service member’s “local area.”  In response to the Deputy Secretary of Defense’s Memorandum, on March 14, Col. John Schutte, 19th Airlift Wing and installation commander, defined the “local area” as the State of Arkansas and prohibited “travel outside the boundaries of Arkansas” without prior approval. Over time, each of these measures has come to play a vital role in protecting LRAFB’s personnel, decreasing the spread of COVID-19, and maintaining mission capability.

Of note, however, any violation of these travel restrictions is punishable under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Article 92 of the UCMJ requires service members to obey lawful orders and regulations. In fact, the maximum punishment at court-martial for an Article 92 offense is “bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 2 years.”

Military law has for a long time recognized the significance of following lawful orders. Initially, the provision was drafted into the Articles of War in 1776 and later incorporated into the UCMJ in 1951. Similar to the other articles in the UCMJ, Article 92 seeks to prevent actions that are prejudicial to good order and discipline. As underscored in Air Force Instruction 1-1, “maintaining good order and discipline is paramount for mission accomplishment.” Therefore, Article 92 functions as a necessary safeguard to protect the good order of the services and their mission success. Orders such as the travel restriction directly contribute to mission success. A failure to obey the travel restriction order may have detrimental effects on our nation’s ability to preserve and ready the world’s greatest Air Force. Just like any enemy before it, we are in a daily battle to combat COVID-19. Consequently, service members must follow lawful orders. Not doing so not only risks one to repercussions under the UCMJ, but could also have a devastating impact on fellow service members. 

Like many Americans, I have had to make many changes in my daily life for the collective good. Before COVID-19, many parts of my life comprised of social gatherings with friends and family. Now, I connect with my family and friends through group video chats. COVID-19 has pushed all of us to look for different mediums in connecting with others. My taste in music has adjusted considerably. The tune on replay in my head now is the “Happy Birthday” song, singing it throughout the day as I wash my hands to destroy any possible exposure to COVID-19. 

Recently, I began to telework from home two days out of the week. With that comes its own challenges, but not one day passes by where I am not reminded about how I am fortunate that I am to be still employed. Last week, a record number of Americans, 6.6 million, filed for unemployment benefits revealing the hardships many Americans are facing nationwide because of COVID-19. The growing hardships faced by communities across America demonstrates how dire our collective response to COVID-19 is.

For the foreseeable future, many of my pastimes will be heavily geared toward activities that limit exposure to COVID-19 such as reading books, organizing the apartment, and hiking. I recognize that while challenging, all of these changes are necessary because as COVID-19 continues to rapidly spread in the U.S., it will become even more paramount that we collectively change our behaviors and follow orders that decrease the impacts of COVID-19 not only for the Air Force, but also for the good of our nation.