Thousands of active-duty service members have failed to comply with the Biden administration’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate, raising the prospect that they will be forced to leave their positions or the military altogether.
The vaccination deadline for active-duty members of the armed services has passed for the Air Force, Navy and the Marine Corps. The Army's deadline is Dec. 15.
Despite the Pentagon's vaccine mandate, approximately 27,000 members of the Marines, Air Force, Space Force and the Navy are still considered unvaccinated. About 19,000 of the Army's soldiers have yet to start the protocol with only a week left before that branch's deadline.
An Army official with knowledge of the matter emphasized that records continue to be updated and that commanders are engaging their soldiers regarding their vaccination status.
"From my perspective, it's a discipline issue," said David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general who led coalition forces in Afghanistan. "You've got thousands of troops who are essentially refusing a legal order to take the vaccine — I've never seen anything like that happen before. It's very unsettling."
The mandate has worked. Since Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin required military personnel to receive the vaccine Aug. 25, an additional 21 percent of the active duty military is fully vaccinated, the Defense Department reported.
Barno emphasized, however, that even a small number of unvaccinated service members undermines the entire force.
"This is definitely a negative in terms of overall military readiness," he added. "Even just 3 or 4 percent means tens of thousands of troops that are unvaccinated, which means they are hugely vulnerable to the virus and are pretty much nondeployable to anywhere in the world where the virus is raging."
What comes next for these members of the armed services who have not received the vaccine becomes an open question.
The Marine Corps has been most explicit regarding consequences for service members who do not receive the vaccine.
Its policy states that any active duty Marine "who did not receive a final vaccination dose by Nov. 14 is considered unvaccinated. All unvaccinated Marines without a pending or approved administrative exemption, medical exemption, or religious accommodation, or appeal, will be processed for administrative separation."
That kind of separation or discharge could mean that Marines and members of other services may not receive veterans benefits. They may also have to pay back certain bonuses or education benefits they received during their service.
So far, no Marine has been discharged, but that could soon change. Receiving a permanent exemption in any of the service branches is difficult.
The Marine Corps has provided only 15 permanent medical exemptions so far for Covid vaccinations. More than 2,400 Marines applied for religious exemptions, but none of the 2,009 processed as of Monday had been approved.
With 95 percent of the Marine Corps partially or fully vaccinated, however, that leaves around 9,000 Marines who could be headed for "administrative separation."
While the vaccination rates for the Air Force, Space Force and the Navy are higher — all are near 97 percent — thousands of airmen, guardians and seamen who remain unvaccinated could also see their military careers come to an end.
"If you are going to refuse to take a vaccine, you are failing your shipmates, you are failing your battle buddies, you are failing your fellow airmen," said James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral and a former supreme allied commander for NATO. "I look at this as a necessity. Although we will lose some people who are otherwise good at their jobs, I think we're better off overall for enforcing this mandate."
The Army, the military's largest branch, is 96 percent vaccinated as of Dec. 2, when it last reported vaccination data.
Lt. Col. Terence Kelley, an Army spokesperson, said the Army and the military's decision to mandate the vaccine was to ensure that soldiers were ready to enter the field at a moment's notice.
"The Covid-19 vaccine is a readiness issue for the Army: our units and troops must be ready to deploy and fight. Required vaccinations are nothing new to the U.S. military," he said.
Unvaccinated soldiers in position of leadership will be relieved of their position, Kelley said, and soldiers who refuse the vaccine without an approved exemption will receive a note of reprimand on their record and be "flagged," which means they cannot receive a promotion or transfer and would be barred from re-enlistment.
Soldiers could also face nonjudicial and judicial punishment, and be discharged from the Army, he added.
Looming in the distance is another issue: the National Guard and Reserve.
Austin ordered that all members of the National Guard and Reserve also receive Covid vaccinations or lose pay and be banned from drills and training. Missing drills can lead to demotion and release from the force.
Republican governors, particularly Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt who last week filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense over vaccine mandates, have threatened to turn these mandates into a political issue.
The deadline for the Air National Guard and Reserve has passed, but members of the Army National Guard and Reserve don't have to be fully vaccinated until June 2022.
Barno and Stavridis both reflected on the long history of vaccinations in the military. Barno said he had received "a bazillion vaccines in my military career" and Stavridis noted he received nine anthrax vaccine shots just during the Gulf War.
"Being in the service involves getting a lot of vaccinations that you would never encounter in civilian life, and that's part and parcel being in the military," Barno said. "Everybody pretty much recognizes that."
Both agreed that any service members who refused the Covid vaccine should be separated from the military.
Stavridis, however, remained optimistic that the military would quickly see a spike in vaccinations once service members realized the stakes of refusal, particularly as anything less than an honorable discharge from the military can drag a career, within and outside the armed forces.
"I think when people are faced with those kinds of choices, my guess is that in the end, 99 percent of the force will get vaccinated," he said. "Can we deal with a 1 percent loss? Yes, we can. And in the end, we'll be readier force because of it."