Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops remain unvaccinated as COVID-19 vaccine mandate deadlines loom, according to data reviewed by The Epoch Times.
A Nov. 2 deadline for active-duty Air Force personnel is the first in a series of dates that various military members are facing to get fully vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19.
If they don’t, they’ll face punishment. They could potentially be court-martialed and dishonorably discharged.
A large percentage of most branches have gotten at least one shot of a vaccine. Many troops are poised to be in compliance with orders laying out the mandates. But there’s still a considerable number of service members who remain unvaccinated, including 32 percent of the Army and about one in five overall.
“There’s been a significant pushback,” Sean Timmons, a military veteran and a managing partner at Tully Rinckey, told The Epoch Times.
The percentage of unvaccinated is likely to be so high that the military will use non-compliance with the mandate to kick out troops that leaders don’t like but will retain those they do, at least for a while, he added.
Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the Pentagon and a flurry of troops have sought exemptions since Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in August, just after U.S. drug regulators approved Pfizer’s vaccine, ordered troops to get a jab. He left the details up to the head of each branch, including deadlines.
The specific orders were soon announced and members learned when they’ll face repercussions if they don’t get a shot and aren’t approved for an exemption. Active-duty Navy and Marines personnel have until Nov. 28, nearly a full month later than the Air Force deadline. The Army set a Dec. 15 deadline for active-duty soldiers.
Reserve components, including the National Guard, in each branch have a later date: Dec. 2 for the Air Force, Dec. 28 for the Navy and Marines, and June 30, 2022, for the Army.
Active-duty and reserve Coast Guard members don’t have a deadline. Instead, they’ve “been ordered to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 immediately, as soon as operations allow,” a spokeswoman told The Epoch Times in an email.
Ahead of the looming dates, senior leaders have launched an intensive effort to convince members to get a shot, even if they can prove they’ve recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies against the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus. Top officials have encouraged troops in town halls, speeches, and on social media to get a shot, as well as in numerous private discussions.
“The benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine are clear. In order to effectively protect our nation and those we love, we must effectively protect ourselves from this disease. #OneTeamOneFight,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall wrote on Twitter late last month.
Lt. Gen. Jason Evans, a deputy chief of staff in the Army, in a town hall on Tuesday likened the vaccine to a new type of body armor. “It may not wrap around you and save every piece of your body, of your life, but what if I had it and had the opportunity to issue you that body armor before you deployed. Would you do it? Would you tell everybody you’ve got to wear it? Would you make them wear it? Absolutely,” he said.
“You would never question the secretary or the chief” if they said to wear that armor, he added.
The pressure can sometimes veer into browbeating, Timmons said. Some of his clients have been among groups ordered onto a bus, which takes them to a gym where vaccinations are being done. Those who refuse are singled out and made to face a wall.
“That’s an example I’ve seen repeated multiple times. They line everybody up in a gym. Those that refuse, they put them in a corner and they basically make them look like bad kids in school,” he said. “‘Oh, look everybody, we would have 100 percent compliance but Sanders and Smith and Jones over there, they don’t want to get their vaccines, they’re a bunch of jerks. Look at them over there.’”
The military is accepting requests for religious and medical exemptions, and a small number have been accepted, lawyers say. Members are “welcome to apply” for exemptions, Major Charlie Dietz, a Pentagon spokesman, told The Epoch Times in an email, referring further questions to the branches.
As of Oct. 13, no religious accommodation requests have been approved by the Marines, Capt. Andrew Wood, a spokesman told The Epoch Times in an email. An Air Force spokeswoman said that the branch is not tracking exemption requests and could not say whether any have been approved.
“At this stage, it is too early to provide data on religious accommodation requests or requests for medical exemptions,” a Coast Guard spokesperson said. The Army did not respond to a request for comment and the Navy declined to comment.
The number of unvaccinated troops is steadily going down and some branches have seen high compliance. Just 4.1 percent of active-duty Air Force members, for example, remain without any shots as of Oct. 11. And the total compliance rate is 94 percent, including reserves and the Space Force. Ninety-nine percent of the Navy’s active force, meanwhile, has gotten one or two shots.
“We continue to make progress on this,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.
Others are struggling to convince troops to get vaccinated. The Army has the lowest vaccination rate, followed by the Marines, where nearly 26 percent of the active and reserve force has not received any doses. Nearly 9 percent of the Coast Guard remains unvaccinated. Overall, over 440,600 military members remain unvaccinated as of this week, according to data compiled by The Epoch Times.
Based on those numbers, “we could certainly wind up with pockets of high infection rates that could, in principle, leave a given unit non-functional for a period of time,” Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research for the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Program, told The Epoch Times in an email.
“I don’t think there is a comprehensive threat to the total force,” he added. “But individual ships, squads, squadrons—they could be taken down. And if engaged or needed in an important operation at just that moment, the costs to the nation could be considerable. I don’t see this as an existential issue; the plausible worst-case scenarios do not, in my mind, lead us to lose wars due to COVID. But lots of smaller things could go awry, and some people could die as a result, in or out of uniform.”
The motivation to not get a shot includes moral opposition because aborted fetal cells were used to develop or test the three vaccines authorized or approved for use in the United States, lawyers representing members pursuing exemptions say. Others worry about the lack of long-term safety data, note they’re at low risk of getting severe cases of COVID-19 because they’re young and healthy, and point to the serious but rare side effects, like blood clotting, linked to one or more of the jabs.
An overriding issue for many is the refusal by military leaders to consider natural immunity as an alternative to vaccination. Some studies indicate that natural immunity is similar or superior to the level of protection people get from vaccines, though others have suggested that vaccination is better. Some experts recommend even people with post-infection protection get at least one vaccine dose for an even higher level of shielding.
“These guys are not anti-vax, they just—given the extraordinarily low risk of COVID to them, and we have the substantial risk of unknown long term effects of the vaccine—they aren’t comfortable with it right now,” Timothy Parlatore, a lawyer representing some troops, told The Epoch Times previously.
Members have told him they would prefer to wait a year to get a better understanding of the safety of the vaccines.
Right now, nobody is getting removed from their position due to vaccination refusal. But that could change as the deadlines start passing, Col. Aaron Bohrer, chief of operations and director of training for the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence at Fort Leonard Wood, said on KCUR radio earlier this month.
“It will potentially change as we see what our numbers are of total refusals and as these religious exemptions and medical exemptions are processed,” he said.
Members who don’t want a vaccine are given medical information and forced to speak with superiors, Kirby said.
“It’s a lawful order, so obviously if after all that effort the lawful order is disobeyed, there could be disciplinary action. But the secretary believes that there’s lots of tools available to leaders, short of using the Uniform Code of Military Justice, to get these troops to do the right thing for themselves and for their units,” he added.
According to the Coast Guard, members who don’t comply and don’t get an exemption are open for punishment under Article 92 of the code, which says that any troop who violates or fails to obey a lawful order or regulation or is derelict in performing his duties shall be punished “as a court-martial may direct.”
That may include the initiation of discharge proceedings. Attempts by Republicans to prevent dishonorable discharges over the vaccine mandates have, so far, been unsuccessful.