Onward Christian Soldiers: Against the Military’s Vaccine Mandate
More than 18,000 service members—Top Gun instructors, executive officers, and SEALs—seek religious exemption from the Covid-19 vaccine.
Three. That is the total number of service members in the U.S. Marine Corps—and the Department of Defense as a whole—whose religious appeal to skip the Covid-19 vaccine has been approved so far. Three.
The rumor among active duty Marines is that at least two of these members were already out of the service or within days of leaving, making the Corps’ approval of their packet something more like a publicity stunt—but these rumors remain unconfirmed. What is confirmed, however, is that of the 3,438 Marines who requested religious accommodation, 3,377 have had that initial request denied. Those still awaiting a verdict number 51. That’s just in the Marine Corps.
Two. That is how many chances the Department of Defense officially gives before a soldier’s administrative separation begins. Two chances.
For those whose religious exemption has been denied, that’s chance one. Now, they can choose to appeal the decision to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger. If Berger says no, the service member gets approximately five business days to get the shot. Otherwise, he is processed for separation, typically a general discharge.
One. That is the number of decisions standing between the military and allowing these men and women to continue to serve their country, to continue their long and accomplished careers, and to give them the retirement with full military pension and benefits they are so close to earning. One shot; one reversed mandate; one decision on religious accommodations.
The military has said vaccination against Covid-19 is more important.
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From the beginning, the military vaccine mandate has been an interesting conundrum. For some, it’s just another shot on a long list of required vaccinations for military members. They signed up to serve, and that meant surrendering their bodies, end of story. For others, it’s a troubling exploitation of service members’ lack of bodily autonomy to force a new and ineffective shot into a couple million arms with the threat of not only lost jobs but lost benefits amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, all to promote a public health campaign that is fundamentally political.
But for the men and women requesting religious exemption to the Covid-19 vaccine mandate in the Department of Defense, the question has long been one of Christian duty: Can I carry out this order and not violate my conscience? For the more than 18,000 service members seeking a religious exemption from the mandate—approximately 3,200 in the Marine Corps, 2,800 in the Navy, 1,700 in the Army, and more than 10,700 in the Department of the Air Force, which includes the Space Force—the answer is “no.”
This is particularly relevant to officers. Unlike an enlisted soldier, these men and women aren’t recruited just to march, pull a trigger, and obey orders, but to lead. Officer training programs are designed to make boys into men, second lieutenants into generals, captains, and commandants, in part by studying history’s greatest leaders, from Alexander to de Gaulle.
In the Marine Corps, officers are instructed that they must master the two types of courage, both moral and physical.
“The physical part is the easy part,” said one Marine Corps F-35 pilot, who is seeking a religious accommodation and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You just grit your teeth.”
Moral courage, which involves questions of prudence, is not so easy, he said. For example, when is the right time to invoke it?
“This issue, more than any other, has brought forth officers and enlisted, coming together with moral courage saying, ‘This is wrong. We have, at a bare minimum, uneasiness about this particular thing. This should be halted,'” the pilot said. “There, they are exercising their moral courage. But in this case, it’s being met with, ‘Well, no, we don’t mean moral courage like that.’ You wonder, what are you really looking for in an officer, if you’re not looking for a decision maker? Ultimately, you’re looking for a Yes Man.”
The pilot initially sought civilian legal advice after submitting his religious accommodation, but found lawyers were already swamped, simultaneously representing as many as 60 service members seeking vaccine exemptions. Even for the group of 35 Navy SEALs and Navy specialists, to whom a Texas district court granted a preliminary injunction, blocking the Defense Department from taking action against the group for refusing the vaccine on religious grounds, the decision was incredibly narrow and subject to the Biden administration’s appeal.
“By all accounts, it is theater,” wrote Judge Reed O’Connor of the military’s religious accommodation process in his ruling on the SEALs’ case, noting that 29 of the 35 troops represented in the suit had had their religious accommodation requests denied.
“The Navy has not granted a religious exemption to any vaccine in recent memory,” O’Connor wrote. “It merely rubber stamps each denial.”
For service members like the F-35 pilot and many others, this certainly seems to be the case.
The pilot explained:
I have a wife and a son, and obviously the job is supporting them, but additionally, like any red-blooded American, joining the service and flying in the Marine Corps was to serve my country, to honorably serve and protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. The crushing part of the entire situation is the conflict put in between our God-given conscience and what the Marine Corps has asked us to do. There’s no room for compromise on this particular issue. Do you go with your conscience, which as a Christian comes from the Holy Spirit, while knowing that means giving up the job that is feeding your wife and son? That’s the question a lot of people are being forced to ask now.
Initially, before Congress included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that soldiers discharged for refusing the Covid-19 vaccine would not receive any lower than a general discharge with honor, the pilot said he was warned that his resistance to the vaccine mandate could include anything from dishonorable discharge to jail time.
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Hank Hortenstine, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, was executive officer—second only to the commanding officer—of the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona, before he sought a religious exemption to the Covid-19 vaccine mandate.
“When I saw this coming down the pipe, before it was a mandate, it didn’t sit well with me,” Hortenstine told The American Conservative. “What initially struck me, personally, was the conflict between what a mandate would be and the oath I took to support and defend the Constitution. The oath an officer takes is a bit different from the one an enlisted member takes—ours is specific to the Constitution, as opposed to directly obeying orders from those over us.”
For Hortenstine, both the Christian roots of the American government he signed up to support and defend, as well as his own conscientious concerns about the use of aborted fetal cell lines in the development of the Covid-19 vaccines, meant he could not take the shot.
“Whether I potentially stand to benefit in any medical capacity or not—and, certainly, I would benefit in a career capacity—I view that as being complicit in abortion,” Hortenstine said.
Within two days of submitting his request for a religious accommodation, Hortenstine was grounded from flying after the commanding general for his region said that the C-12 transport aircraft Hortenstine was flying could only be flown and occupied by vaccinated crew. While the action was presented to Hortenstine as a job change, and purportedly unrelated to his religious exemption request, he has yet to be assigned a new job since the grounding was ordered on September 10, 2021.
“As far as I know, only one other person was affected by that order,” Hortenstine added.
According to Marine Corps orders, based on federal civil rights law, service members pursuing a medical or religious accommodation are not to receive any punitive action until after their request has been denied. When Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Reed, an F-18 pilot in Yuma and the executive officer of his squadron, told his leadership in November he was submitting a religious exemption request, he was advised that he would have to be removed from his executive officer position “for the stability of the squadron.”
“They thought the likely outcome of my religious accommodation request is that it would be denied,” Reed told The American Conservative. “They wanted to go ahead and stabilize and put someone else in there, prior to my request even being submitted.”
For Reed, an important aspect of his conviction against taking the Covid-19 vaccine was his concern that doing so would lead astray the Marines under his leadership.
“There are several aspects about the production of the vaccine itself that militate against what I see as moral and right, and I can’t subject myself to that, or set that example to the Marines beneath me,” Reed said. “To set the right example, I decided to seek a religious accommodation.”
With his religious appeal denied shortly after Christmas, Reed was officially removed from his position on January 4. While he still flies with his squadron, the 18-year veteran pilot and TOPGUN flight school graduate is out of a job and preparing his wife and two children for the likelihood of his administrative separation from the military in the coming months.
For Reed, Hortenstine, and all Marines awaiting Berger’s response to their appeals, they could remain in limbo for as long as 18 months, unable to advance and unable to start over again until the military officially kicks them out. Seeking to avoid this problem, Hortenstine requested the military consider him for early retirement, so as not to lose all the benefits he is only one year of service away from receiving. The military denied his request. Hortenstine has requested early retirement a subsequent time.
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While some reports have said young junior officers are the most likely to resist the vaccine, Reed was quick to emphasize that there are “plenty of officers much more accomplished than myself” who have stood up to the mandate, at great cost.
One accomplished pilot is Reed’s friend, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Scott Duncan, a former TOPGUN instructor, who schooled Marines in flying F-18s as well as the F-35B and has over 2,700 hours of flight experience. Duncan leads the Tactics and Integration Department at the Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One (VMX-1) at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, and was slated to be the commander for an F-35 squadron before he sought a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate.
Even before the mandate came down, however, he was in conversation with his leadership to communicate his convictions against taking the Covid-19 vaccines.
“We addressed leadership and told them if it came down to a mandate, this was the stance we would take,” Duncan told The American Conservative. “We did not believe it was appropriate for a variety of reasons. Part of the problem is that the narrative didn’t seem to fit the reality of the seriousness of the threat.”
The narrative fed Marines—and troops throughout the Defense Department—is that they must take the vaccine to maintain force readiness; it will keep troops healthy so that they can be deployable. Duncan and others noted, however, that in many cases their vaccinated coworkers have had to take more sick days than those seeking an exemption to the mandate.
“I have not missed any days from work, personally, as an unvaccinated person, due to Covid-19 or another illness,” Duncan said. “That doesn’t mean the virus is not real—I had it along with my family, and that just happened to be over the holiday leave period. But at work right now, there are a lot of vaccinated folks across several military units that are at home and unable to function in their capacity because they are Covid positive.”
Communicating with one another about their religious exemptions as well as seeking and sharing legal advice, service members resisting the mandate have formed strong networks for support and encouragement. One such grassroots activation in which Duncan participated was a group of some 350 pilots seeking a religious exemption. Members of the group shared their personal information and service history, and found their average time of service was 14 years; approximately 69 percent were instructor pilots; 9 percent were weapons school graduates or instructors; several were involved in nuclear programs; and the group totaled approximately 677,000 combined flight hours.
“Even if you replace every single one of those pilots right now, it takes well over a decade to get even close to the qualification of the people who are being forced to leave,” Duncan said. “The impact is well beyond a current snapshot of numbers, when you take into account how qualified these people are. You’re creating almost a decade’s worth of deficit you have to overcome.”
While many in military leadership have said the number of exemptions granted will be nominal, the effect of such a purge on military readiness would not be.
“If we lose all these people, these highly qualified individuals, that’s probably a larger risk or impediment to readiness, especially if those who are getting the shot are getting sick,” Duncan said.
Duncan’s religious exemption request was denied on October 20. He appealed, and was informed his appeal was denied on January 25. Duncan will now have the opportunity, with the assistance of both civilian and military defense counsel, to present his case to a military board of inquiry which will ultimately determine whether or not he can continue to serve—and, if not, what will be the characterization of his discharge. Duncan does not yet know when that board meeting will take place.
“Throughout this entire process, all of us are fighting to remain in the service,” he said. “We believe the shot is not necessary, and we’re trying to stay in and voice our concerns as to why we cannot be accommodated and why the shot must be mandatory.”
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Brandi King, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force reserves with 19 and a half years of service, was hand-selected by a two star general to lead a program started by the chief of staff of the Air Force before she requested a religious exemption to the Covid-19 vaccine mandate. As soon as she announced her intentions, she was pressured and verbally bullied by her superior officers, who told her not to go through with this course of action, King told The American Conservative.
There had been at least two weeks of harassment and bullying, as they were trying to get me not to file a religious accommodation request. I was basically told that my career would end, that I would get court-martialed, that I would be convicted under UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] Article 92, or Article 15, or all kinds of stuff. There are several witnesses to that. So it was just a very hostile environment.
On September 28, King’s supervisor asked her yet again if she was “really going to do this” and told her “you can’t do this.”
I said, “Yes, sir. My religious beliefs will not allow me to get the shot—any of the three shots, which are all under EUA, by the way—but I can’t get it. I will be filing for a Religious Accommodation request, despite any damage to my career, or whatever other threat.” And he said “Fine then. We will be terminating your orders, per General Pennington.”
Major General Jeffrey T. Pennington is the commander of the Fourth Air Force.
King has also submitted four medical exemption requests: one cited her previous infection with Covid-19; another invoked her participation in an ongoing study on the vaccine in which she was a part of the control group; a third cited her inability to access the FDA approved vaccine, as her medical care provider only had the Emergency Use Authorized drug available, and no vials of Comirnaty. Her fourth exemption request demonstrated her allergy to polysorbate 80 and polyethylene glycol, two ingredients present in Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines. While this earned her a 30-day exemption initially, her leadership quickly revoked the medical exemption and responded with a letter of reprimand—a career-ending document.
Despite feeling that her constitutional due process rights have been violated, and despite the stress of the last several months on her family of four, King said she has sought refuge in holy scripture, and has felt the peace of the Holy Spirit guiding her. She cited Isaiah 33:15, which instructs those who walk in righteousness to reject gain from extortion.
That is what we are seeing in these mandates. People are having to choose between feeding their family and getting a shot. I think the Bible gives us a specific roadmap to that. As hard as it is, don’t succumb to it. Don’t close your eyes to evil, stand up against it. And then in verse 16, it says your bread will be supplied and water will not fail you. I think it’s so hard in our materialistic society, where we’re so used to comfort, to choose freedom over comfort and to choose freedom over fear. But that is what we are called to do. It’s what we’re called to do as Christians and it’s what we’re called to do as supporters and defenders of the Constitution.
For civilians in the Department of Defense, the story is only slightly more encouraging. After a federal judge in Texas blocked President Biden’s vaccine mandate for federal workers in January, all enforcement and disciplinary actions against civilian employees in the DoD have been put on hold. Still, civilians seeking religious exemption from the mandate have yet to be told whether they will be approved or denied.
Alex Braszko, a Department of the Army analyst, estimates 10 percent of his agency has refused the vaccine, whether or not they have submitted religious or medical accommodation packets. For his own part, being both morally opposed to the Covid-19 vaccines on account of his Christian faith and having had previous adverse reactions to a vaccine, Braszko has submitted both medical and religious accommodation requests.
“It’s the components of the vaccine, the fact that we’ve already survived having Covid, and that we really do trust in the ability of our God-created immune system to handle the virus,” Braszko said. “There are a lot of us Christians out here who really mean it when we say we’ve put our faith in God. That lack of fear of Covid-19 drives people nuts.”
For Braszko, a West Point graduate and retired lieutenant colonel who served 22 years on active duty, a large concern is the attitude with which the vaccine campaign has been delivered.
“There’s such a condescending attitude, that ‘These people are dispensable, we’ll get rid of them, we’ll replace them,'” he said. “What are you doing to your recruitment efforts with this attitude, especially from a generational perspective?”
“I come from a military family,” said Braszko, whose father, brother, two brothers in law, stepfather and stepmother all served in some capacity. His wife also served in the Army.
“We love and appreciate the military. We understand the value of a military career. But as far as whether this vaccine mandate influences my recommendation to my children, absolutely it does,” Braszko said. “It leaves a bad taste in our mouth. We will continue to recommend our kids serve their communities and their country. We would prefer they have the option to serve on active duty, but right now, if my child was of age, I would recommend they consider other options to a military career.”
Prior to the Covid-19 vaccines, the Army policy for handling accommodation requests, derived from a similar Air Force directive, stated that previous documented infection would be grounds for exemption from a vaccine mandate. For Braszko and several of his colleagues who have already been infected with Covid-19, this is a significant element of their medical appeals, submitted back in October.
“There’s very specific guidance, and it’s not like it hasn’t been done before,” Braszko said. “The problem is, for quite a while, no one was sure who would process those packets—EEO [the equal employment office] or the chain of command. Pretty much across the Army, there was zero guidance given for the longest time on what to do with the waiver requests. That type of uncertainty causes a lot of anxiety, and that has basically continued to today.”
As one senior intelligence analyst in the DoD told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity, part of the confusion was due to the Department of Defense’s refusal to allow service members to pursue the reasonable accommodation process, a much more common method for adjudicating exceptions to standard procedures. This process, which the senior analyst used in the past when a back injury made it difficult for him to use a standard-issue desk, is a much more individualized process between a member and his management, with accommodation requests handled case by case.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Safe Federal Workforce Task Force direct the use of the reasonable accommodation process, which has been used in the past to address everything from injury-related exceptions to religious accommodations to standard protocol, such as requests to abstain from working on the Sabbath. That is, until the Covid-19 vaccine.
The analyst described the change from the reasonable accommodation process to the religious accommodation process as “like an airplane being built in flight.”
“It’s caused a lot of trouble. They keep going back and adjusting the rules,” he said.
One example was the chaplain interview, which service members seeking a religious exemption back in October were told was a mandatory part of the process. One week after the senior analyst conducted his chaplain interview, command said the interview was no longer required.
“I had my interview, and I think it went well, but if the chaplain was going to recommend my RA be denied based on that interview, then that would have already been processed, whereas a bunch of my coworkers wouldn’t have that recommendation working against them,” he explained.
One reason for this may be the sheer volume of exemption requests every branch of the military received, well beyond the number of objectors to any other defense-wide order—even the anthrax vaccine, by many estimates.
For one active duty major in the U.S. Army, who is employed with the Defense Intelligence Agency in a joint capacity, the whole concept of the chaplain interview was already an infringement on a soldier’s constitutional right to the free expression of his sincerely held religious beliefs. Even more concerning to the major, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the Army chaplains were given no instruction on how to assess the soldiers coming in to request a religious accommodation.
“When I sat down with the chaplain, he had no document from DIA about how to assess my case,” the major said. “All he had was an Air Force memo that came from God knows where, and he admitted it as such, and because of that, I, as an Army person, in absence of guidance from the Army, am being judged by Air Force standards.”
Despite his frustration, the major said it has been important to him as well as his fellow Christians seeking accommodation to remain above reproach throughout the process—even though it may mean walking away just a few years shy of 20 years of service, losing his retirement pension, benefits, healthcare for his wife and three kids, and virtually starting his career over at 46 years old.
“The whole point of doing this is to do the right thing, primarily before God,” the major said.
All of the members of the civilian and military service who spoke for this article spoke in their personal capacity and do not represent the opinions or positions of the United States Armed Forces or Department of Defense.