The worrier warrior – leading the last line of defence in a pandemic
Defence Forces chief of staff Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett on a year of fighting Covid-19
Defence Forces chief of staff Vice-Admiral Mark Mellett at McKee Barracks in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson
Most people remember when they first had a shiver of concern about Covid-19.
He remembers saying at the time that he had “a bad feeling about this”.
“That to me was alarm bells ringing,” he recalls, as he reflects on the role the Defence Forces has played over the past year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In January Mellett ordered the officer in charge of operations to start tracking developments out of Asia on the spread of this new virus putting it “on his radar in terms of threats”.
By February, a joint operation planning group was set up and by the following month a joint task force of about 40 personnel was established in a gym at McKee Barracks near the Phoenix Park in Dublin. The scale of the planning and the depth of the potential risks were unprecedented.
At the end of the day, we have to be there at the end. There isn’t a case whereby the military can fail
“I don’t want to be alarmist in this but some of the early numbers on mortality were quite frightening in the context of our morgues and hospitals being overwhelmed,” he tells The Irish Times, sitting in his office at McKee Barracks.
Mellett recalls calling Health Service Executive chief executive Paul Reid to ask him to drop over to McKee to confirm the grim numbers his analysts were projecting if the worst came to the worst. He did.
Plans were made to set up field hospitals and makeshift morgues to cope with a possible surge in the numbers of seriously ill and the dead. Contingency measures were put in place to manage critical infrastructure if the communications or power grids or the water system failed.
Last line of defence
Mellett saw the Defence Forces as being, as its name suggests, the last line of defence.
“My sense of foreboding was the very institutions might not even survive this so what we need to do is create something that’s robust. We had to be there at the end,” he said.
The Defence Forces has turned past experiences overseas dealing with Ebola outbreaks in West Africa and refugees in Liberia and Rwanda to domestic use. It drew in not just the military but civil institutions on the task force to create “a one-stop shop if things became more challenging”.
“I was basically pushing for the lockdown as early as possible because otherwise, if we lost control of it, we would have been overwhelmed,” he said.
Mellett says he does not mean to “sound Doomsday-like” but he is in the business of insuring for “the unexpected” and planning for the worst.
“At the end of the day, we have to be there at the end. There isn’t a case whereby the military can fail,” he said.
Reflecting on the past year, Mellett says “some of the best wastes of time” were overseeing the building and dismantling of morgues and step-down isolation facilities that were not needed.
“There are nice pieces to this that the bean counters will never be able to rationalise because if you were to look at that in terms of value for money, you’d say you should never have done that,” he said.
“Well, better be looking at it than looking for it.”
The Defence Forces has been working alongside the health service ever since Mellett put Ireland’s military at the “call” of the HSE. In typical military nomenclature, Mellett groups the military’s role under “four Ts”: transport, testing, tracing and tentage.
This covers everything from transporting vaccines to remote locations and Covid-19 tests by air to Germany to testing 250,000 people over nine months at the Army-run testing centre at the Aviva stadium to assigning 75 cadets on contact tracing to putting up tents outside hospitals for triage.
In tandem, Mellett had to manage what he calls “the meat and two veg of our business”: the State’s day-to-day defence and security requirements such as maritime and air patrols, the Emergency Aeromedical Service and almost 600 troops overseas in 14 missions in 13 countries.
Covid is a brand new battlefield. Mellett admits he did not even know what contact tracing was when he received a call from a Government Minister seeking “an army of tracers.”
“There was no rulebook back at the start of this for Covid,” he said.
Now Mellett says there is “huge pressure” on him to provide resources for a “shopping list” that is growing with other Covid-related demands on the Defence Forces. He has stepped the military back from contact tracing to focus on its role in the mandatory hotel quarantine system and nine mass-vaccination centres but he says he “can see an ask coming” on contact tracing.
He is careful not to expend all his resources in order to maintain “headroom” so the Defence Forces can respond to unexpected issues.
“You always have to have a reserve to stay on the front foot,” he said.
Mellett sees the military’s role at quarantine hotels as that of “troubleshooter” but not to lead or enforce the rules, despite security issues exposed last weekend when three guests broke quarantine and left. He believes the civil authority must be in charge given the sensitivities around personnel in uniform policing something that encroaches on a person’s civil liberties.
Another area Mellett was initially sensitive about was sending the Army into nursing homes after seeing soldiers sent into Spanish care homes to remove the bodies of the Covid-19 dead.
“I said that will never happen here,” he said.
The Defence Forces were not called into the nursing homes early in the pandemic – the HSE dealt with the crisis then – but the military has supported at least nine care homes since then.
“You could say: what do big warrior soldiers know about nursing homes? Actually, what has come through on this all along is the reassurance and the empathy that actually soldiers who care bring to bear, wherever they are,” he said.
He sees this work as an example of the broader role the military can play and part of his plan since becoming chief of staff in 2015 to “break down barrack walls” for wider society to see what the Defence Forces can do and to challenge preconceived ideas people have about what the military does. The pandemic has “fast-tracked” this, he said.
“We are the shock absorber for the State and the resilience in the capacity to absorb that shock is directly proportional to the quality of the premium you’re willing to pay for it,” he said.
Mellett accepts there have been “challenges in the past” when asked about frosty relations between the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence. He said he has a “really constructive relationship” with the department’s secretary general Jacqui McCrum, who was appointed last year.
“She has brought a perspective that in many ways is similar to mine in terms of outlook and outreach and can-do. By the way, that means a certain amount of risk-taking. We are both ad idem: mistakes will happen,” he said.
He defended an article in the Defence Forces Review, an academic journal published last December, that showed the department having significantly more control over the military than civil servants in other small countries; it ruffled some feathers within the department.
Does he stand over the research?
“This is not North Korea, ” he replied. “I actually really encourage reflection.”
However, he acknowledges the department could have been notified in advance as part of a “no surprises” arrangement he has with Ms McCrum.
The lesson for him from the episode was, he said, that “if I had known that the sensitivity of the reflection was going to be in the league that it was, I would have let the department know”.
The issue of resources have thrown up other difficulties. The Vice-Admiral said that two of the Naval Service’s nine ships had to be tied up in dock in 2019 because it was “losing more people than we were recruiting” and he had to manage risk where a ship may not have a full crew.
“I have never met a chief of defence who couldn’t do with more resources,” he said.
Mellett sees the new Commission on the Defence Forces as a mechanism to address staffing and pay issues along with other areas where he has encountered challenges in the past.
He accepts that some in the military would like to see him take a tougher stance against the department on behalf of the Defence Forces but challenges his critics, including the “armchair admirals” and “invisible keyboard warriors” noting that they do not have to juggle what he must.
“Yes, people would like me to perhaps be more vocal. But I think over the years, if you go back on my social media side, I have to walk that fine line between keeping government and keeping soldiers happy and it is a lonely place,” he said.
It is a place that also requires a level of concern to remain alert.
His job is to worry about what’s ahead, be it pandemics, how climate change will affect Africa and elsewhere, and gender inequality, a major factor in “inter-state and intra-state violence”: “If I’m not worried about future shocks, I should be fired. It’s my job to worry about that stuff.”
On the Covid-19 front, Mellett says he sees nothing over the horizon that he has a bad feeling about. On the State’s response, he is confident that the “various parts of the orchestra are in tune”.
“I am naturally an optimist, which is probably not a good place for somebody whose job is to worry about bad things,” he said.