Short of the Mandate They Crave, Military Leaders Race to Vaccinate Troops
COLORADO SPRINGS – Three soldiers in camouflage uniforms were crowded around a table at a popular burrito location near Fort Carson on Friday, chewing on the news that the military may soon require all troops to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Two of the soldiers had already received the blow. One hadn’t.
The military had ordered him to receive a quiver of other vaccines, including the annual flu shot. The big difference with this one was that she finally had a choice.
“Honestly, if the military wants you to do something, they’ll force you. It was always voluntary, so I just put it off, ”said the unvaccinated soldier, adding that a busy schedule and fear of side effects had encouraged her to delay.
The soldier declined to give her name because she was not authorized to speak to the media, but said that although most of the soldiers she knows in the station’s 25,000 active-duty soldiers are vaccinated, others have concerns and take advantage of a rare digression. not often tuned to the base.
That may soon change. Late Thursday evening, the Pentagon announced that all military and civilian employees would be asked to prove they were vaccinated or to undergo mandatory masks, physical distancing and regular testing, as well as restrictions on trip, just as President Biden demanded of the rest of the federal civilians. employees. The new requirements bring the armed forces closer to a mandate.
Mandatory injections are standard operating procedure for the military, which, starting from training camp, requires troops to be vaccinated against at least a dozen diseases. For now, however, the military is trying to find ways to get more troops to fire without simply issuing an order.
Of the Army’s 1,336,000 active-duty members, about 64 percent are fully immunized, above the 60 percent of Americans over 18 who are fully immunized. But for the military, this rate is unacceptably low, because it is difficult to deploy unvaccinated troops to countries with strict local restrictions, and because a wave of the virus among troops can cripple preparation. .
Military leaders cannot demand injections because coronavirus vaccines are not fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration and are only allowed in emergencies. Mr Biden could order compulsory vaccination for troops, but has been reluctant to exercise that authority, and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has previously said he would not be comfortable with a warrant as long as vaccines would not be fully approved.
Although coronavirus vaccines have become a political flashpoint among the civilian population, several military leaders said they did not expect much resistance if an order was issued because troops were used to receiving compulsory vaccines. But, they added, while following orders is at the heart of military culture, so too is the soldier’s axiom “never volunteer for anything.”
At the same time, the US military knows how deadly infectious diseases can be because it has been fighting them for centuries.
In the winter of 1777, smallpox ravaged the Continental Army to the point that the ability to continue fighting was in doubt. General George Washington proposed the very first mass inoculation by infecting healthy troops with the pus of their ailing comrades. The practice, which often led to illnesses but drastically reduced the number of deaths, was deeply polarizing. Many settlers saw it as a conspiracy of the devil, or worse, of the crown. Some colonies have banned the practice, and in Virginia rioters have attacked doctors offering treatment.
But Washington felt it had no choice, telling one of its medical advisers that “necessity not only authorizes but appears to demand measure.”
Mass inoculation ended the epidemic and may have been crucial in winning the war, said Carol R. Byerly, historian of military medicine.
“This was the beginning of the recognition that public health is a strategic weapon – and the military has been a leader in the field ever since,” Ms. Byerly said.
As new conflicts pushed American troops to new corners of the world, diseases often killed many more people than the enemy. Military medics have rushed to develop ways to combat afflictions like typhoid fever and yellow fever. The troops, which to some extent were used as guinea pigs, generally had no say.
“There have always been protests,” Ms. Byerly said, highlighting World War I, when many soldiers and their families launched a letter-writing campaign against a newly developed smallpox vaccine that became the first universally compulsory vaccination. in the army. “But the military knows vaccines are the best weapon, so even though there is controversy, leaders thought it was worth it.”
But ordering compulsory vaccination carries its own risks for military preparation. In the 1990s, the military grew tired of vaccinating the entire force against the anthrax virus. Groups of troops refused to comply. Hundreds of people have been punished, some with other than honorable acquittals. Others resigned in protest. In one Air National Guard squadron, a quarter of pilots resigned rather than being vaccinated, undermining the unit’s ability to function.
The anthrax vaccination effort was hampered by court cases and supply issues, and was ultimately reduced to only a small portion of high-risk troops.
Failing an order, service branches are trying to encourage members who are reluctant to take the coronavirus vaccine in a way they believe addresses their specific concerns.
Navy officials have found that talking about the vaccine as both a weapon and a preparation agent is most effective. “Our sailors understand that if they are going into a hostile or dangerous environment, they must wear protective gear,” said Rear Admiral Bruce L. Gillingham, the Surgeon General of the Navy. “It’s an organic bulletproof vest.”
In Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a weekly podcast featured troops chatting with military medical officials about their concerns about the vaccine.
In a recent conversation, Sgt. Colt Joiner and Lt. Col. Owen Price discussed a common misconception raised by young soldiers: that they are at a greater risk of dying from the side effects of shooting than from Covid-19. It’s a belief that increasingly worries military commanders, as data on the Delta variant shows high rates of serious illness in unvaccinated youth.
“Me, being a 24 year old guy,” said Sergeant Joiner, “I think right now it’s not that much of a risk to me. At the moment, I just don’t see it as a priority.
The idea that the coronavirus is a threat only to older Americans is “eroding,” Colonel Price told him. “The percentage of people your age seeing these effects is increasing. “
At Fort Carson this week, an officer from a brigade about to deploy proudly said his vaccination rate was 71%, well above the military average. Success, he said, was about showing leadership – getting enlisted soldiers and senior officers getting vaccinated, explaining their choices to junior soldiers, and encouraging them to volunteer.
But was this volunteering really “voluntary” – the military’s cherished tradition of telling troops that they are absolutely supposed to do something that is technically voluntary?
When asked, the officer laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “There is probably a bit of that.
Dave Philipps reported in Colorado Springs, and Jennifer steinhauer from Washington.
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