A senior Senate Republican’s call for a suspension of mandatory coronavirus vaccines for U.S. troops and Pentagon civilians could fuel partisan divisions over the pandemic and add a defense element to the debate.
James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, in a letter Monday to Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III called the Pentagon’s vaccine mandates “haphazardly implemented and politically motivated.”
Inhofe said they “risk irrevocable damage to our national security,” which he said would be greater “than any external threat.” He requested answers from Austin on the mandates’ costs and impact on readiness.
Republicans have conducted a full-court press in recent days on the Senate floor and beyond to make a political issue out of resisting the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates — not just at the Pentagon but governmentwide.
However, some Democrats on the Armed Services Committees are outraged by Inhofe’s letter. These lawmakers, in statements to CQ Roll Call, noted that U.S. troops must be up to date on a variety of vaccinations, from chickenpox to measles, and may have to get additional jabs depending on where they are deployed.
“There are already 17 vaccines that are mandatory for all servicemembers,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who chairs the Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee. “This is a military readiness issue — the COVID vaccine will keep our troops healthier, safer, and ready to fight when called upon.”
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, expressed a similar view.
“The COVID-19 outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt last year, which saw over 1,200 sailors infected and one killed, should serve as a grave reminder for anyone trying to make vaccine requirements a political football,” Speier said. “The cost of doing so will be paid in wasted dollars and the lives of our brave servicemembers.”
Mandates up for debate
Under new Defense Department and federal government directives, a coronavirus vaccination is mandatory for not only servicemembers but also Defense Department civilians and contractors, except for those with religious or medical exemptions. Except for Army National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers, all the shots must occur by the end of this year.
The pending National Defense Authorization Act bills do not currently address whether to force the Pentagon to either drop or maintain its mandates. But as the vaccination deadlines near and political passions rise, lawmakers could still debate whether to include a directive in the final law.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, sought unanimous consent Wednesday to bring to the floor for debate a measure that would bar the Pentagon from requiring vaccines. Republican Sens. Mike Braun of Indiana and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama are co-sponsors, Lee said.
Lee said he has heard from nearly 300 servicemembers from Utah complaining that they have to choose between staying in the military and getting vaccinated.
“It’s un-American, it’s unfair and it’s immoral,” Lee said, adding that he is “not anti-vaccine” and is himself vaccinated.
On Tuesday, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., had tried unsuccessfully to bring to the floor several measures barring vaccine mandates for recipients of federal aid. Similarly, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., was rebuffed on the Senate floor Wednesday when he tried to bring up another bill that would rescind two September 2021 executive orders related to COVID-19 vaccination requirements and other safety protocols for federal employees and contractors.
Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, promptly objected on Wednesday to bringing Lee’s bill to the floor.
“Requiring vaccination is almost as old as the military itself, and I can personally verify that point,” said Reed, a former Army captain.
The House has passed its NDAA, but the Senate has yet to debate its Armed Services Committee measure. As a result, House and Senate negotiators are still weeks away from writing a final version.
The House-passed NDAA does indirectly address the coronavirus vaccine mandate. It would forbid the Pentagon from dishonorably discharging troops who decline to be vaccinated. The Navy, for one, has said it does not plan to make any separations from service other than honorable ones if a sailor refuses to be vaccinated.
The House NDAA also would exempt from the vaccine requirement those who have been previously infected with the virus. Such an allowance does not appear to be part of any Defense Department guidance.
Meanwhile, the Senate’s NDAA and the House and Senate Defense appropriations bills appear to have so far steered clear of the controversy over vaccine mandates.
It may not matter. By the time the NDAA or the spending bills become law, probably at the end of 2021 or early 2022, it may be too late to make a difference in how most U.S. servicemembers and Defense Department civilians are affected, since most have to get the shots by November or December.
400,000 unvaccinated troops?
It’s possible that hundreds of thousands of troops remain unvaccinated, which could present a readiness issue, depending on how many are separated from service or unable to deploy as a result.
To date, Pentagon figures show, more than 1.7 million U.S. military personnel — active duty, National Guard and reserves — have been either partially or fully vaccinated. That represents about 80 percent of the 2.1 million-strong U.S. military force.
It also means that about 400,000 have yet to receive even a first shot, or that the Pentagon does not know they have. And of those 400,000, about three-quarters appear to be members of the Army National Guard and Army Reserve.
The Washington Post reported earlier this month that about 40 percent of the half a million Army Guard and Reserve personnel are not fully vaccinated.
While most troops and civilians must be vaccinated by the end of the year, Army reservists have until June 30, 2022. Army officials have cited a number of reasons for the extended schedule, including that the force is large, geographically dispersed and harder to track.
Because Army reservists have more than six months from now to get their shots, it will take that much longer to ensure the total force is well protected against the virus.
On the other hand, the extended schedule for Army reservists also means that fewer of them will have to be separated from service in the next few months or be rendered undeployable because they are unvaccinated.
The pandemic has not spared the Defense Department. Pentagon figures current as of Oct. 13 indicate that 553 people connected to the U.S. military have died of COVID-19. The majority were civilians, and the deceased also included servicemembers, contractors and dependents.
The disease has created a national security threat like no other. Worldwide, nearly 5 million people have died from the disease, including in excess of 728,000 Americans.