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Unvaccinated Troops Push Back

Biden's military vaccine mandate continues to make waves, as termination of unvaccinated troops comes up against a 10-year pilot shortage.

FORT KNOX, KY - SEPTEMBER 09: A Preventative Medicine Services technician fills a syringe with a Janssen COVID-19 vaccine on September 9, 2021 in Fort Knox, Kentucky. The Pentagon, with the support of military leaders and U.S. President Joe Biden, mandated COVID-19 vaccination for all military service members in early September. The Pentagon stresses inoculation from COVID-19 and other diseases to avoid outbreaks from impeding the fighting force of the US Military. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

After being told their requests for religious exemption to the vaccine mandate would likely be denied, members of the military are now facing removal, and possibly recoupment of their training costs, if they refuse the Covid-19 mRNA shot.

On October 21, the Marine Corps published new instructions regarding the Covid-19 vaccine mandate in the military. The paper confirmed that Marines who refuse the vaccine, absent an approved exemption, will be “processed for administrative separation”—in other words, they will be kicked out. Moreover, Marines who are separated for vaccination refusal “will not be eligible for involuntary separation pay and will be subject to recoupment of any unearned special or incentive pays and advance educational assistance.” Marines who are receiving Transfer of Education Benefits who fail to complete their service obligation by leaving the Corps will also lose their post-9/11 G.I. bill benefits and “may be subject to recoupment if the Veterans Affairs has already processed a payment for transferred benefits.”

What all of this means—how much “recoupment” includes, from the cost of a specific kind of training to the price tag on all the military’s prior investment in a given service member—is still up for speculation. But the notice, the third in a chain of increasingly hawkish notices from the Corps’ higher command on implementing the vaccine, certainly reads threateningly. In the wake of a 10 year pilot shortage, and with low numbers of troops on the whole, the military’s move is bold—and potentially counterproductive.

Since the Biden administration announced the mandate, military lawyers in D.C. say they have received hundreds of calls from service members who don’t want to take the vaccine. And yet, despite a flurry of religious exemption requests from the 3 percent of active duty troops who remain unvaccinated, the Department of Defense says it is not currently taking any action on the question. Though the Navy has approved a total of five medical exemptions for the vaccine, neither it nor the Marine Corps have approved a single religious exemption so far.

Last week, anonymous DoD officials told the New York Times that “no one is actively discouraging people in the military from seeking a religious exemption. But anyone seeking one from the Pentagon or Department of Veterans Affairs would be required to have an established history of adherence to a religion that prohibits vaccines, among other things.”

Prior to Covid-19, the greatest pushback on a vaccine mandate in the military was with the anthrax vaccine, produced by Michigan Biologic Products Institute. Between 1998 to 2004, when the anthrax vaccine was mandated for troops, at least 500 service members refused the vaccine; all were disciplined or kicked out of the military. Yet in 2005, an investigative report by a Virginia newspaper revealed that, despite years of testimony, the Pentagon never told Congress that as many as 20,000 troops were hospitalized after taking the shot. Cited by the FDA in 1997 and subject to several investigations, reviews, and criticism for its handling of the vaccine, the anthrax vaccine producer has since become Emergent BioSolutions, the same company subcontracted to provide the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

While some troops today are submitting religious exemption requests, others say the mandate itself is illegal, because it contradicts prior Department of Defense regulations. One group of 16 soldiers is currently suing the Department of Defense claiming that because the soldiers have natural immunity, or are pregnant or trying to conceive, and thus vulnerable to potential side effects from the new treatment, they should not be required to take the shot. This is the second lawsuit launched by military personnel in response to the mandate, after two staff sergeants filed a suit on August 17 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, seeking an exception to the order for military members who have recovered from Covid-19.

The staff sergeants in the Colorado case are appealing to Army Regulation 40-562, which exempts troops from vaccination when they are documented survivors of the illness, since they have acquired immunity. Per the army regulation the troops cite, qualifying medical exemptions should include any “underlying health condition of the vaccine candidate (for example, based on immune competence, pharmacologic or radiation therapy, pregnancy and/or previous adverse response to immunization)” or “evidence of immunity based on serologic tests, documented infection, or similar circumstances.”

A handful of patients have reported cases of myocarditis or thrombosis, inflammation of the heart muscle and abnormal blood clot formation that causes a stroke, respectively, after taking the vaccine. These cases are statistically few, and while several have resulted in deaths, many mild cases have resolved; yet, they seem to occur far more frequently in younger patients. For young pilots, who cannot fly if they do develop such a heart condition, no matter how mild, the risk is certainly more serious.

Indeed, pilots present a particular problem for the Department of Defense, in light of the pilot shortage it has been talking about for the last ten years. As of March 2019, according to an inventory report from the Marine Corps headquarters, overall fixed-wing, company grade aviation strength stood at a staggering 52 percent. In addition to a bottleneck in the process of getting soldiers into the cockpit, the military has also struggled to retain its pilots beyond a certain level in their career; getting ahead is too difficult, so they’re getting out instead. The DoD’s globalist instincts aside, they have put themselves in an interesting bind by calling soldiers to vaccinate or get the boot when, in reality, their desire for troops demands just the opposite.

Despite the Nation Defense Authorization Act’s original provision that soldiers discharged for refusing the shot would receive no less than an honorable discharge, the Navy has said that those who are kicked out for refusing the vaccine will receive, at the highest, a general discharge under honorable conditions. This can disqualify former service members from veteran benefits. Jeff Steele, legislative attache for the American Legion’s National Security Division, said this is because service members who join the military give up a lot of individual freedoms, by definition.

“You’re basically offering up your life, under the most extreme circumstances,” Steele told The American Conservative. “Military service comes with a lot of demands and a lot of obligations, and people that serve have to be willing to comply with those demands and obligations, otherwise the military doesn’t work. If you refuse a shot or vaccination or whatever, then that’s not a perfect service.”

Of the service branches, the Marine Corps currently has the lowest vaccination rate, at 85 percent, while the Navy has the highest, at 98 percent. In order to be considered fully vaccinated by Nov. 28, the deadline for active-duty sailors and Marines, troops who haven’t gotten a Pfizer or Moderna shot prior to Oct. 24 will have to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by Nov. 14—or file a religious appeal—to avoid consequences. For reserve members, meanwhile, the deadline is not until June 2022. Currently, only about 40 percent of the Army Reserve and 38 percent of the National Guard are fully vaccinated.

While many Republicans in congress have spoken up about vaccine mandates in the private sector, few have carried over that enthusiasm to the military mandate, as the military is generally seen as subject to a more several rule, categorically. Still, some like Thomas Massie, a representative from Kentucky, argue that even a lawful mandate does not provide the Department of Defense carte blanche to trample soldiers’ first amendment right to the free exercise of religion, which Massie claims is being ignored by the military’s failure to approve religious accommodation requests.

Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, demanded in a letter last month that the Defense Department abandon the mandate for troops and civilian personnel altogether, citing the vaccine’s “haphazard implementation” and “political motivations,” following a group of 30 some Republicans who sought to take down the mandate prior to its conception in September. The former chairman of the armed services committee said he had “grave concerns” about the impact the mandate would have on both troop readiness and morale.

“Plainly stated, no service member, Department of Defense civilian or contractor supporting the department should be dismissed due to failure to comply with the mandate until the ramifications of mass dismissal are known,” Inhofe wrote.

about the author

Carmel Richardson is the 2021-2022 editorial fellow at The American Conservative. She received her B.A. from Hillsdale College in political philosophy with a minor in journalism. She firmly believes that the backroads are better than the interstate, and though she currently resides in Northern Virginia, her home state will always be Tennessee.

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