The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Defense Secretary Esper stood beside World War II veterans — without a mask

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and other officials posed with World War II veterans on May 8 ahead of a remembrance ceremony President Trump attended. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

President Trump and Defense Secretary Mark T. 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. The veterans were not wearing masks.

Esper, also without a mask, 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 from 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.

The event was coordinated by the White House, according to a Pentagon spokesman, who said it was mostly conducted with participants six feet apart. Esper tested negative on Friday morning before the event, the spokesman said.

Esper and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, also in attendance, should have worn masks and kept distant at all times, said Vietnam Veterans of America, a veterans advocacy group.

“We need the president and his closest aides to immediately start modeling CDC guidelines and behavior that keeps veterans and elderly Americans safe, because what they’re doing right now is going to get people killed,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, the group’s associate director of policy and government affairs.

Jonathan Hoffman, a Pentagon spokesman, defended Esper’s involvement in the event.

“The Secretary takes covid mitigation measures seriously and that is why he was tested before the event and after the one incredible photo with these great heroes remained appropriately socially distant throughout this outdoor event,” Hoffman 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 Pence, who was criticized for not wearing a mask at the Mayo Clinic and later acknowledged he should have.

What VA isn’t saying about hydroxychloroquine — and everything else related to coronavirus

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 Greatest Generations Foundation, which helps veterans visit battlefields where they fought, coordinated attendance after a similar ceremony slated in Russia fell through, its director Timothy Davis said.

The coronavirus was not a concern discussed among the veterans ahead of the event Thursday night, and all the veterans tested negative Friday morning, Davis told The Washington Post.

“They understand the stakes and the risks involved. All we did was pave the way, and they just delivered,” he said. “They’re proud to be a voice of history and for those who are no longer with us.”

The Pentagon referred questions about the event to Friends of the National World War II Memorial, which it said was the organizer of the event. 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 executive director.

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.”

The Honor Flight Network, which sends veterans to tour war memorials in Washington, suspended operation in March. The group postponed flights through June 30 because of infection concerns for elderly veterans.

On Friday, Pence’s press secretary confirmed to NBC News that she tested positive for the coronavirus. A military valet for Trump also tested positive Thursday.

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

At least 828 veterans have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, 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.

This story has been updated with a statement from Jonathan Hoffman, a Pentagon spokesman, that was provided after this story was published.