Nearly a year after contracting the coronavirus, Gen. David “DT” Thompson has a warning for his fellow Americans: don’t gamble with your health.
Thompson, who as the Space Force’s vice chief of space operations is the second highest-ranking officer in the newest military branch, tested positive for the coronavirus on Oct. 28, 2020 after coming into close contact with an infected family member.
He became the third senior military official with a confirmed case of COVID-19 so far in the pandemic, after former Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray and Assistant Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Gary Thomas.
The positive result came as a surprise, Thompson said — he was asymptomatic and wouldn’t have known he’d contracted the virus otherwise.
“[There was] nothing I did for myself that made that difference,” he told Air Force Times in an interview Thursday. “It was just the accident of my biology and, I don’t know, my DNA or whatever it is that said that was the case.”
More than 36 million Americans have been infected as of Friday, and more than 617,000 have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates 30 percent of COVID-19 cases in the United States may be asymptomatic.
He returned to work at the Pentagon Nov. 9, 2020 after an 11-day quarantine at home.
But it’s not what did happen during Thompson’s own bout of COVID-19 that left an impression on the four-star general: it’s the bullet he dodged, and his first-hand knowledge of how the virus continues to affect the military.
As a senior official, Thompson receives each notification of a service member, civilian employee or contractor who dies of COVID-19.
“When you come in in the morning, … and it has started again – 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10 individual notifications of yet another 50-, 60-, 70-year-old civilian or contractor who has died of COVID – that smacks you in the face every single day,” he said. “That’s probably had the most impact on me.”
Nearly 400 military personnel, civilian workers, contractors and their dependents have died from COVID-19 so far, according to Pentagon data. That includes 262 civilians, 88 contractors, 29 military members and 16 dependents as of 6 a.m. on Wednesday. The most recent troop killed was Army Lt. Col. Scott Flanders, a 56-year-old I Corps operations officer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, who died Aug. 2 of complications caused by the coronavirus, Army Times reported Friday.
The Defense Department has also reported 326,604 total cases and 4,534 hospitalizations as of Wednesday morning. The Department of the Air Force, which includes the Space Force, had logged 60,708 cases, 29 hospitalizations and 97 deaths as of Aug. 9.
Thompson is 58 years old, squarely in the target demographic of those military employees killed by the virus.
“I was frankly blessed and lucky,” he said. “I could have been one of those reports.”
Earlier that same October, Thompson wrestled with whether to invite his 83-year-old mother to his promotion ceremony to four-star general, but opted not to include her. He now recalls that event with relief.
“It’s very possible that had she participated in that ceremony, that she would have contracted COVID, and the outcome would not have been the same as mine,” Thompson said.
He cautioned troops against carelessness as the virus’s delta variant sweeps around the country, causing a spike in cases particularly among unvaccinated Americans.
Nearly 285,000 uniformed airmen and guardians were fully vaccinated as of Aug. 11, according to the Pentagon. Another 30,000 or so have received a partial dose. Together, they account for about 60 percent of the 512,000 total service members in the active-duty Air Force and Space Force, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard.
“Nobody anywhere should be rolling the dice with, ‘It’s OK if I get it, I’ll be one of the ones who’s not impacted,’” he said. “This isn’t just about protecting me, it’s about protecting everybody else around me who may have that severe and unfortunately deadly reaction to the virus.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.