US military braces for impact of repeal of covid vaccine mandate


As a repeal of the U.S. military’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate moved one step closer to becoming law Thursday, military officials and experts warn it’s a change that could have negative ripple effects on military readiness and the ability of service members to deploy approx. . the world.

“This is not just our side of the equation,” a defense official told CNN about the possible impact of the change. “That’s what our partners and people that we would train and work with are asking us to do to get into the country.”

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), released Tuesday, includes a provision that would repeal the Pentagon’s current mandate requiring troops to receive the Covid vaccine. And while Republican lawmakers have celebrated its inclusion, the White House said it is a mistake — though President Joe Biden has not made it clear whether he will sign the bill with the provision included in it.

The House passed the NDAA on Thursday by a vote of 350-80.

Deputy Defense Press Secretary Sabrina Singh declined Wednesday to go into detail about what the Pentagon was preparing for if the mandate were lifted, stressing instead that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin believes the mandate is important to the health of the force.

“What’s important to the readiness of the force is getting the vaccine,” Singh said. “So yes, it would affect the readiness of the force – you are more likely to get Covid-19.”

It’s not just about the US. US troops often have additional vaccine requirements depending on the area of ​​the world they are deployed to or rotated through. Under the Pentagon’s current policy, service members who have not received the vaccine are considered non-deployable, Singh said Wednesday.

In fact, retired General Robert Abrams, who previously commanded US troops in South Korea, told CNN that canceling the vaccine “will make our job more difficult”, referring to the duties of the overseas commanders. The Covid-19 vaccine is required for entry into South Korea and Japan – countries that host thousands of US service members.

Repealing the vaccine mandate “will put the US forces in an awkward position,” Abrams said, because “the host nation expects us to follow their rules (and SOFA). [status of forces agreement] requires it).”

Republicans have long spoken out against the Covid vaccine requirement — which is one of more than 15 required vaccines, depending on where a service member is deployed.

An August 2021 policy signed by Austin required all service members to receive the vaccine; the services set their own deadlines for when their troops had to be fully vaccinated.

Now, about a year later, the vast majority of U.S. troops are: 97% of active duty soldiers are fully vaccinated, as are 99% of active duty airmen, 96% of active duty Marines and 98% of active duty sailors.

But as the military faces its biggest recruiting crisis in decades, critics of the mandate say it pushes out willing service members at a time when the military needs them most and stands in the way of recruits who want to join but don’t want to get the vaccine.

Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger said over the weekend that the mandate is having an impact on recruiting, specifically “in parts of the country there are still myths and mistrust about the back story behind it.” Capt. Ryan Bruce, a Marine Corps spokesman, later told CNN that Berger was referring to “anecdotal conversations” he’s had with recruiters and not specific data showing an impact of the mandate on recruiting.

However, officials and experts raised other concerns about the impact a repeal of the mandate could have on troops already in uniform. Rachel VanLandingham, a retired Air Force judge attorney and law professor at Southwestern Law School, told CNN there could be “ripple effects” for units if some service members are unable to deploy because of the vaccine.

This is especially notable for smaller units, such as those found in the special operations community. While conventional forces may be able to ensure they have the numbers they need for a deployment or rotation, smaller units may face a greater challenge if the few people they have are unable to to deploy due to a vaccine requirement.

“If a unit can’t go, then the unit they’re replacing, they don’t get to go home on leave … It’s not just one unit and one person,” VanLandingham said. “One person’s inability to show up for work in a military unit affects that entire unit, and that unit is dependent on other units. It’s really a team dynamic.”

Abrams also pointed out that vaccinations “help prevent serious illness” and US Forces Korea “does not have the medical capacity to deal with large numbers of very sick infected personnel.” Instead, U.S. personnel would have to be sent to Korean facilities, he said, which could pose problems if there is a lack of availability or if the facility is not approved by TRICARE, the U.S. military’s health care provider.

Experts also raised questions about the precedent it would set to roll back a legal military order after so many refused to follow it.

“If I’m a commander, what concerns do I have in leading this person who disobeyed a lawful order?” said Kate Kuzminski, the director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security.

“I think there are some bigger challenges within the social context and the culture of the military if pushing back on a lawful order actually changes the nature of the lawful order,” she added. “You may see people refuse to do other things in the future that we very much need them to do.”

Among the debated points of the vaccine repeal is the question of what will happen to the roughly 8,000 service members who have already been separated and forced out of the military because they refused to be vaccinated. While some speculate that because they refused a legal order they will remain separated, some lawmakers are pushing to have them reinstated.

A letter sent Nov. 30 to Republican leadership and signed by 13 Republican senators requests that the mandate not only be lifted, but that service members who have been separated be reinstated “with back pay.” Pentagon leaders are reportedly discussing the possibility.

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