As the war in Ukraine continues to entertain Western audiences, thrusting Covid-19 to the forgotten back seat, countless Covid-era mandates have been repealed, from masks in schools to vaccine requirements for entry in public spaces. Yet one aspect of the ancien regime has not followed suit: the vaccine mandate in the military and Department of Defense.
Indeed, the same Pentagon that has quietly sent another 500 U.S. troops to Europe to reinforce NATO’s flank has also been asking the Supreme Court to block a group of unvaccinated Navy SEALs from their deployment responsibilities.
In January, Texas-based U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled the department could not take an “adverse action” against a group of roughly three dozen soldiers, including 26 Navy SEALs, who challenged the military’s vaccine mandate on religious grounds. The Defense Department requested a halt to O’Connor’s order, which a unanimous three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit declined to grant in February. The Defense Department filed the emergency request to the Supreme Court on Monday, and within an hour, the Court asked the challengers to file a response by next Monday, according to the Hill.
As I have previously reported here at The American Conservative, thousands of soldiers and civilians across the department have sought exemption to the vaccine mandate, many of high rank and with a decade or more of service, in order to protect their conscience without abandoning their earnest desire to serve. As of mid-February, the department had granted a total of 15 exemptions to the mandate, many of which went to retiring service members, while the rest of the approximately 16,000 appeals in the military alone were either denied or remain untouched.
For those soldiers who have the means and the time to await a verdict from the judicial branch, the results have been far more positive. Most recently, a federal judge in Georgia ruled that an Air Force officer who was previously denied a religious exemption does not have to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, due to her religious beliefs. Still, the court cases have been narrow—applying only to the troops named in a given case, and sometimes after the troop has already been administratively separated—and have not uniformly ruled on the question of unvaccinated troops’ deployability. (A service member who can continue to serve but cannot be deployed is at an effective dead end for his career, as collaboration and future promotions are frequently tied to deployment.) The Supreme Court’s decision on the SEALs’ case could change that.
The irony here is that while the Defense Department is desperate to end the careers of the vaccine-non-compliant, the war machine in Washington is wagging a salivating tongue at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The competing aims of the military—total vaccine compliance on the one hand and war fever on the other—should serve to remind us again why you don’t beat your tank-drivers with a political bludgeon. The results may not be pretty.