The Air Force’s Covid Cure Is Worse Than the Disease
The Air Force has taken a punitive approach towards Airmen with religious objections to the vaccine.
The Air Force has taken unreasonably harsh punitive measures against its members who have religious or moral objections to the Covid-19 vaccines. Such a harsh approach imposes great costs on the force, its missions, and undermines the very priorities it intends to protect.
A military vaccine mandate was foreseeable from the moment President Trump first announced Operation Warp Speed and the rapid development of vaccines for Covid-19. What would have also been apparent to anyone inquisitive was the high likelihood of many objections being registered by Airmen. Yet, without such an inquiry, the secretary of Defense released a memo immediately following the FDA licensing of Pfizer’s Covid vaccine directing the services to ensure all service members got vaccinated against Covid-19 with “urgency, professionalism, and compassion.” Presumably, the compassion would be for those who had objections or were hesitant to take the novel, quick-to-market products. It seems, though, that while the vaccines were mandatory, the compassion was not.
Certainly not alone among the services in its harsh manner of policy implementation, the Air Force has violated the policy that protects the religious freedoms of service members in ways both justifiable and not. The religious-accommodation process directs a decision to be made on a member’s case within 30 days of submission. Most have taken more than six months, and some have been in consideration for over a year. This can be forgiven to some degree because the task is difficult. The policy requires that each accommodation request be considered individually as to how each accommodation would impact mission accomplishment, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion. It is the responsibility of military leadership to protect these interests in a manner that is least restrictive on the individual Airman’s constitutional rights. This individual assessment is a difficult one and that difficulty is compounded by the volume of requests.
But the time delays are less understandable since the requests have been denied at a concerning, perhaps illegal rate (as a federal judge, a circuit court, and the DoDIG have acknowledged) and the necessary individual considerations appear to have been neglected.
Take my own case for example. I submitted an accommodation request in late September 2021 and received my initial denial in late May 2022—eight months later. The content of the denial indicates that the decision did not address my case individually in two ways. First, it mischaracterized the details of my specific case, and assumed certain aspects of my service that were not true. Second and more importantly, though, my denial curiously argued that granting my accommodation would create a double standard.
Such a claim undermines the requirement for individual consideration because it is true of any exception. More than that, it is an abrogation of the authority to decide granted by policy, as the policy itself accepts that additional standards apply when it grants the authority to decide exceptions. To deny a request based on the appearance of a double standard is to abrogate the responsibility to decide. This undermines the requirement for individual consideration, places undue burden on the religious beliefs of service members, and is an abuse of the policy created to protect their rights.
Nevertheless, the Air Force, in its desire to avoid the impression of favoritism, has done the opposite—it has created a disfavored class. This class consists of service members of diverse skill sets, ranks, experience levels, races, and sexes. What the members of this class have in common is a willingness to take a stand, at sometimes great personal risk, for the sake of their moral conscience. Many of them have been, and continue to be, grounded from flying for simply requesting accommodation. They have been, and continue to be, denied professional development, education, and training. And their careers have been shrouded in uncertainty. Yet, they endure, because they have a high degree of moral courage. This is what makes disciplining them so detrimental to the service.
I characterize the Air Force as taking an unreasonably harsh punitive approach not simply because it is denying accommodations and appeals, but because it is also denying voluntary separation and retirement requests and then disciplining Airmen when they have no other options but to violate their moral and religious conscience.
The full accommodation process entails up to three decision points—initial request, appeal to a higher authority, and voluntary separation or retirement. If an initial request is denied, it can be appealed. If an appeal is denied, then the member can apply to leave the service voluntarily. This makes sense. When a legal order is given, yet conscience prevents fulfilling that order, perhaps the most honorable thing to do is leave the service. Yet, for those who have service commitments, which can be quantified as either time or money, the Air Force is denying these voluntary requests. And until the courts enjoined the Air Force from disciplining such Airmen, the Air Force was reprimanding and administratively discharging them.
Interestingly, since the injunction prohibits the Air Force from administratively discharging Airmen, denying such retirement or separation requests tacitly admits that the service of these members is more important than their vaccination status. This means that their accommodation request should have been granted and was likely denied for some other reason. Multiple lawsuits against the DoD suggest religious discrimination as that reason. At least two federal judges (see here and here) see merit in this argument.
For the members themselves, though, it is very deeply disconcerting to be required to violate the core principles by which they define what actions are honorable, on the grounds that if they do not dishonor themselves, they will be declared dishonorable by the Air Force. This is both harsh and unreasonable.
Additionally, by more practical measures, the mandate imposes great risks to the force. The most obvious risk is the loss of essential personnel. As of November 1, the Air Force had lost only sixteen service members from the active and reserve components to Covid-19, most of which came after the vaccine mandate, as the Air Force had lost only four service members by the start of the mandate in August 2021. As of July 11, 2022, the Air Force had administratively separated 834 service members.
Simple math reveals that the impact of Covid policy on manning is orders of magnitude more harmful than the losses caused by Covid. While each loss of life is, of course, a tragedy that impacts a unit’s morale and mission, continuing the policy and kicking out the thousands whose accommodation requests have been denied will further negatively impact the mission and morale. Remaining service members will be less able to achieve their aims with fewer people to support achieving them. While Covid has permanently removed sixteen Airmen from the fight, Covid policy has permanently removed hundreds and stands to remove thousands more.
The current Covid policy of administratively separating those denied religious accommodation adversely impacts morale by broadcasting an institutional disdain for their moral courage. The Air Force’s most important core value is “integrity first.” We must ask, what does the service communicate to its members by denying sincere religious and moral accommodation, and then disciplining and discharging the objectors? If nothing else, it communicates that integrity is not first, but second. Moreover, if the Air Force retains those thousands of objecting Airmen and coerces them to compromise their conscience, we must then question what other concerns of conscience would they be willing to compromise.
The Air Force still has the opportunity to avoid incurring these sorts of costs. While such high costs can be anticipated because they are discernible, there are costs that are not so easily discerned. Chief among them is the impact of Covid policy on recruiting. We cannot know how many otherwise capable, intelligent, potential Airmen do not apply because they disagree with the mandate or do not want to cede their moral autonomy to the military. In this regard, the Covid policy can have only a negative impact on recruiting because it can only shrink the pool of eligible candidates. It cannot grow the pool.
In light of such heavy costs, why has the Air Force and DoD persisted with the mandate? One likely, if unpalatable, reason is politics. The secretary of the Air Force unwittingly suggested as much during remarks at a conference in Montgomery, Alabama, on August 30. In response to a question about the lessons learned from Covid, the secretary stated,
The one thing that we should not do is allow a disease like Covid to become political. And that has been disastrous for the country, frankly. I’m not being political when saying that. I’m saying something that I think is medically accurate. We had a lot of disruption and a lot of lives lost that we did not have to have. I don’t understand why we let that happen or how it happened, but it did. There is still a little bit of that going on. We are still, in the Air Force, having people that are very resistant to getting vaccines. I don’t want to go into that very much here. But it is pretty straightforward that the vaccines save lives, that they were safe. That was pretty well-established. But there was a lot of misinformation out there. And there were people, for whatever reason and often in good faith, but still for reasons that, I think, were not factually valid, resisted getting vaccines. That is still going on. And we’ve lost so many people. So, let’s hope we can do a better job of that next time.
These remarks suggest that, in the secretary’s view, vaccine resistance among Airmen has political roots, and that even those Airmen who object in good faith are politically misinformed. A charitable reading of his remarks holds that he is referring to only a subset of those who have resisted vaccination as being politically motivated. But this reading, while charitable, also suggests that the remarks are a bit obtuse, because they fail to distinguish legitimate vaccine refusal from illegitimate refusal.
Yet, the overall response of the Air Force militates against such a charitable reading because there is no way to discern from the actions of the institution that they see any possibility for legitimate vaccine refusal. For the institution, it seems there is only tolerable and intolerable refusal. The Air Force can tolerate refusal for those with medical concerns or nearing retirement or separation, but not for those who will continue to serve.
The uncharitable reading of these remarks reveals that, at least part of the politicization of Covid in the Air Force stems from viewing vaccine resistance through a political lens. It is political to suggest those opposed in principle to the policy have overtly political motives or, at a minimum, are politically naïve in their sources of information. These remarks do not present vaccine refusal as legitimate, but merely political. They suggest, further, that a reason for the harsh treatment of those with religious objections to vaccines is that they are viewed as being politically motivated rather than sincere in their beliefs. The harshness, then, is likely a form of politics, a way to respond in kind.
To many Airman seeking accommodation there is great difficulty in resisting cynicism, because they can anticipate only multiple denials, discipline, then discharge following a process that appears rigged against them. This is the final cost of the policy. Even if these Airmen win in court and are permitted to continue serving, many of them do not want to stay. In a sense, their faith in military leadership is broken. They may still love the job and the Airmen around them, but these goods pale in comparison to the weight of the moral coercion they have experienced.
Hence, the Air Force's Covid policy risks greater harm to those core essentials it was intended to protect—mission accomplishment, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion. There will be fewer Airmen available to accomplish the mission under the vaccine mandate policy than without it. Within squadrons across the Air Force, unit cohesion suffers because of the divide between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Finally, good order and discipline suffers, because the institution, by its actions, has subordinated integrity to obedience, and broken faith with those who have stood by their integrity.
What, then, should we do now? This is a very difficult question to answer because much damage has been done. Much trust has been lost among both serving Airmen and those who would otherwise have served.
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The first step to regaining trust would be to end the policy that is breaking the trust—the Covid vaccine mandate. This would at least indicate a willingness to change with the environment. This would also entail ending the punitive approach to dealing with those who have persisted in their moral and religious objections. It will be difficult to restore the trust lost among many of these Airmen.
For those Airman who view the differences as irreconcilable, they should be permitted to leave with full honors. For those Airmen who indicate a willingness to reconcile and continue serving, commanders and functional managers should be empowered to ameliorate previous harms by granting assignment preferences, prioritizing training to recover what was lost during the policy, and granting special assignments so that careers can progress on different paths, if necessary, to name a few possible ways to make things right.
The Air Force has taken unreasonably harsh punitive measures against its members who have religious or moral objections to the Covid vaccines. Such a harsh approach imposes great costs on the force and mission, and thereby undermines the very priorities the mandate intends to protect. The Air Force must act now to limit the harms and begin, once again and where possible, to regain the trust of Airmen.