By Jack Phillips
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated that he wants to keep imposing the U.S. military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate amid calls by Republicans and a small number of Democrats to scrap the rule in light of recent recruitment shortfalls.
This past week more than 20 Republican governors sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking that the administration remove the mandate, saying it has hurt the U.S. National Guard’s ability to recruit troops. Congress may consider legislation this coming week to end the mandate as a requirement to gather enough support to pass this years’ defense budget.
Austin told reporters Saturday that he will not comment on possible legislation to block defense spending but he stipulated that he wants the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which has led to few religious exemptions, to stay intact. Austin announced the mandate in August 2021.
“We lost a million people to this virus,” Austin told reporters, although studies and data have shown the vast majority of people who died from COVID-19 are elderly or have compromised immune systems. “A million people died in the United States of America. We lost hundreds in DOD. So this mandate has kept people healthy.”
“I’m the guy” who ordered the military to require the vaccine, Austin told reporters. “I support continuation of vaccinating the troops.”
Austin did not make any comment on several military branches seeing recruitment shortfalls in recent months. Since he implemented it last year, thousands of active-duty troops have been discharged because they would not get the vaccine.
A day before, a top Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Gen. Patrick Ryder, said the controversial mandate will remain intact and argued it is needed for U.S. national security.
“As a warfighting organization, the health and readiness of our force is paramount. Vaccination for COVID is still a requirement,” Ryder told reporters. “We’re going to ensure that our forces are properly vaccinated to be able to carry out their wartime mission,” Ryder added, also without addressing any legislation.
Last week, a number of Republican senators threatened to delay the National Defense Authorization Act if Senate leaders do not allow a floor vote on their proposal to scrap vaccine mandates.
“The problem here is that we’re having a dilemma we haven’t had in decades—and that’s finding enough people serving,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said last week in public remarks. “Our recruiting goals are way short. The conflict in the world is getting worse, not better. We need more people in the military, not less.”
As of September, the Army has only met 52 percent of its fiscal year 2022 recruiting goal, according to a letter from House Republicans. A month later, U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth stated that the service only achieved about 75 percent of its fiscal year 2022 recruiting goal.
“The Army will maintain its readiness and meet all our national security requirements. If recruiting challenges persist, we will draw on the Guard and Reserve to augment active-duty forces, and may need to trim our force structure,” she said.
Around the same time, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said about 20 senators would not vote for new defense spending if the mandate is in effect. The mandate, he argued, makes no sense because COVID-19 vaccines do not prevent transmission of the virus, and younger people face an elevated risk of heart inflammation.
“We’re taking action today by saying we will not vote to get on the NDAA—the defense authorization bill—unless we have a vote on ending this military vaccine mandate. That’s it,” Paul told reporters in remarks on Nov. 30. “Some will argue that the vaccine mandate in the military is not new. That is correct,” he added.
It comes as the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld (pdf) an injunction against a U.S. Air Force’s order to penalize service members who have rejected getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Plaintiffs in the case argued the mandate violates their religious freedom and constitutional rights under the First Amendment.
The appeals court noted that few Air Force members have been granted religious exemptions to the vaccine since it was implemented. Of the 10,000 members who requested one, only around 135 have been granted to date and “only to those already planning to leave the service,” the court said, adding that it has “granted thousands of other exemptions for medical reasons.”
“Finding that these claims would likely succeed, the district court granted a preliminary injunction that barred the Air Force from disciplining the Plaintiffs for failing to take a vaccine,” according to the court order. “But its injunction did not interfere with the Air Force’s operational decisions over the Plaintiffs’ duties. The court then certified a class of thousands of similar service members and extended this injunction to the class.”