Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Navy hospital ship leaves LA after treating 77 patients | Space Force flag unveiled | Navy grants first transgender service waiver since ban

Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Rebecca Kheel, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: A Navy hospital ship that had been rushed to Los Angeles to relieve local hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic sailed away Friday after treating 77 patients.

The 1,000-bed USNS Mercy arrived in Los Angeles on March 27 and will now return to its home port in San Diego.

Video of the ship leaving on Friday morning flooded social media channels.

Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the California Office of Emergency Services, said in a statement that having the Mercy in LA “was critical to our ability to respond in the first stages of the pandemic.”

The office said the vessel will leave behind 60 medical personnel to support California’s response to the pandemic, including 40 medical staffers and five-member medical support teams “to be deployed as needed within the region.”

The Navy’s other hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, left New York City at the end of April having treated 182 patients.

In other coronavirus news…

Roosevelt sailors retest positive: At least five sailors who had returned to the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier after a coronavirus quarantine have tested positive for the virus again, the Navy confirmed Friday.

“This week, five USS Theodore Roosevelt sailors who previously tested COVID positive and met rigorous recovery criteria, exceeding CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines, have retested positive,” the Navy said in a statement. 

The sailors, who said the statement said were self-monitoring and adhering to “strict” social distancing protocols, developed flu-like symptoms and “did the right thing reporting to medical for evaluation.”

“The sailors were immediately removed from the ship and placed back in isolation, their close contacts were mapped, and they are receiving the required medical care,” the statement added. “A small number of other sailors who came in close contact with these individuals were also removed from the ship and tested. They will remain in quarantine pending retest results.”

Latest numbers: The Pentagon reported 8,374 cumulative coronavirus cases as of Friday.

That includes 5,526 in the military, including 120 hospitalization and 2,550 recoveries.

In Congress: The House is getting ready to vote on its latest coronavirus package later this evening.

But The Hill’s Jordain Carney reports that striking a bipartisan deal over a new relief bill is becoming increasingly unlikely before June with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at odds over additional legislation.

Though the House is voting on its $3 trillion bill, that piece of legislation has been declared “dead on arrival” in the Senate, where Republicans are taking a wait-and-see approach.

The stalemate almost certainly ensures the House, Senate and White House won’t get an agreement on, or pass, another rescue package before the Memorial Day recess. Senators say that while they expect to pass something eventually, it probably won’t happen between now and next Friday when the recess begins.

MEANWHILE … IN SPACE: The Trump administration on Friday unveiled the official flag to be used by the Space Force, the newest branch of the military.

President Trump held an Oval Office ceremony where the flag was unfurled, signing a proclamation denoting Armed Forces Day alongside military leaders.

“Space is going to be the future, both in terms of defense and offense and so many other things,” Trump said. “And already, from what I’m hearing and based on reports, we’re now the leader in space.”

“This is really to unfurl the flag, but we’ve been doing this now for quite awhile,” he added.

The flag is dark blue with a delta wing, an elliptical orbit and three large stars that are intended to symbolize the Space Force’s purpose of organizing, training and equipping, according to the White House. It is the first new military flag to be unveiled in 72 years.

Huh?: During the flag presentation, Trump also spoke about what he called a new “super-duper” missile.

“We have, I call it the super-duper missile,” Trump said, explaining that it could travel “17 times faster than what they have right now.”

Asked at the Pentagon briefing what Trump was referring to, a Defense spokesman referred reporters back to the White House. But at a later White House briefing, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany referred reporters back to Trump’s comments and to the Pentagon.

NAVY GRANTS FIRST TRANSGENDER SERVICE WAIVER: The Navy has granted the military’s first waiver to allow a transgender service member to continue serving openly since the Trump administration banned most transgender military service.

“The acting secretary of the Navy has approved a specific request for exemption related to military service by transgender persons and persons with gender dysphoria,” Navy spokeswoman Lt. Brittany Stephens said in a statement.

“This service member requested a waiver to serve in their preferred gender, to include obtaining a gender marker change in Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System and being allowed to adhere to standards associated with their preferred gender, such as uniforms and grooming,” Stephens added.

Legal challenges: The Pentagon’s current transgender policy went into effect in April 2019 after courts lifted the last of the injunctions that had been blocking the policy.

At least five lawsuits against the policy have been filed, one of which was filed in March on behalf of a Navy officer identified only as Jane Doe.

Lawyers for Doe said Friday she was the sailor granted the waiver, adding the government was due to file its response to the suit next week.

“While we are relieved that our client, a highly qualified naval officer, will be able to continue her service, there are other equally qualified transgender service members who have sought waivers and are still in limbo, despite being perfectly fit to serve,” Jennifer Levi, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders transgender rights project director, said in a statement. “Dedicated military service members shouldn’t have to bring a lawsuit to be able to continue doing their job.”

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Air Force and Space Force will launch the sixth mission of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Livestream at https://bit.ly/2Z6tsuo.

ICYMI

— The Hill: F-22 pilot ejects before crash near Air Force base in Florida

— New York Times: U.S. urges Afghanistan to stay the course with peace deal as violence resurges

— Associated Press: US blames brutal attack on Afghan maternity hospital on IS

— Stars and Stripes: Here’s a look inside a US military quarantine center in South Korea

— Military Times: VA researching prostate cancer drug as potential coronavirus cure

— Foreign Policy: Top Trump defense pick shows up at Pentagon before Senate confirmation

Tags Donald Trump Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi

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