Yesterday’s announcement that the COVID-19 vaccine will become mandatory for America’s military now that Pfizer has FDA approval has revealed mixed reactions from service members. While some support the decision, others would rather exit a valued career or avoid enlisting altogether instead of complying.
Pentagon reports indicate that more than 1 million sailors, soldiers, Marines, coasties, airmen, and guardians have been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson immunizations, while another 237,000 have received one shot. On Aug. 9, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters that those numbers will not be enough to maintain “a healthy and ready force.”
While some AD servicemembers are in favor of adding the COVID poke to the roster of already-mandated vaccines, others are warning that the move may harm retention and recruitment rates.
Army Sgt. Derek Howard, a military recruiter, has noticed a quick downturn in interested applicants over the last few weeks. Multiple recruits have texted him that they no longer want to serve under President Joe Biden, while another recently ripped up his contract and threw it in the trash after hearing the COVID-19 vaccine announcement.
“I don’t blame them,” Howard said, citing their stated fear of what may be forced in the future. “And I know of so many already in who will get out. These soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen are all going to jump ship, which will open the door for a national security threat because the armed forces have just been depleted.”
Others point out that many current objectors have willingly gotten required vaccines for years without complaint — until now.
“Before COVID, I had no objections to mandated vaccines,” said Army Staff Sgt. Wayne Smith.
Prior to joining eight years ago, he served for 13 years in the British Army, even receiving multiple anthrax inoculations. But once the COVID shot was released, he says he began researching, reading peer-reviewed scientific studies, ingredients lists, and papers by immunologists and virologists. It led him to a decision-tree that once seemed unthinkable: leaving the military if he has to raise his sleeve.
“If [the COVID-19 vaccine becomes unavoidable], I am willing to be discharged from the military, and if it means being court-martialed and possibly jailed, so be it,” Smith said. “I’d rather live the rest of my life knowing I stood my ground for what I believe, setting the example for my children to follow.”
Biden fully supports the push to make the military “ready to operate anywhere in the world” via the COVID mandate.
“Secretary Austin and I share an unshakable commitment to making sure our troops have every tool they need to do their jobs as safely as possible,” Biden said in a statement released earlier this month. “These vaccines will save lives. Period.”
Army Capt. Jonathan Kline, a physician assistant, wholeheartedly agrees with this view.
“COVID-19 vaccines have an incredibly safe safety profile and are an effective weapon in our fight against COVID-19,” he said. “Making this a mandate is no more different than all other vaccine mandates that have been around for military personnel for the last 50, 60 years. It’s absolutely a good thing.”
Kline also doesn’t see evidence of a future recruiting slump, estimating that up to 80% of basic training troops where he’s based are either arriving already vaccinated or volunteering for it there.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a mass exodus, and the new people coming in are pretty responsive to the vaccine,” he said.
Still, some, like Howard, say they are willing to pay the price of starting over.
“After 10 years of my life serving my country that gives freedom and liberty to people, it’s pretty sad it’s come to this,” said Howard. “I asked the JAG lawyer, ‘So the same freedoms we fight for don’t apply to us?’ He said that’s correct.”
“I think that’s pretty messed up, all in the name of safety.”
For questions about COVID-19 vaccines or how to receive one, visit cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/reporting/vaccinefinder/about.html.