Members of the US military are accustomed to vaccinations. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Defense (DOD) administers 17 vaccines. The government says they’re needed to protect members’ health and ensure they can serve in close quarters and conduct their duties worldwide where they could be exposed to severe vaccine-preventable diseases.
On July 29, 2021, President Joe Biden ordered the DOD to add COVID-19 vaccines to the required list of immunizations. On August 9, defense officials released a statement saying the president approved mandatory vaccines. Several service members sued when the armed forces refused to recognize religious exemptions, and Republicans are also pushing back. As Congress considers the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a group of GOP senators says they will refuse to vote for a budget until certain conditions are met.
Republican Senators Want a Vote To Lift the Military Vaccine Requirement
On Wednesday, December 1, seven Republican senators held a press conference to announce they would not support the NDAA unless Democrats allowed a floor vote on a proposal to eliminate the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said the group wanted to end the mandate. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) argued the requirement was hurting military recruitment, saying the armed forces struggled to find people to serve and numbers were falling short. Graham noted the problem was occurring while conditions worldwide worsened, and the services needed more people, not less.
Other Senators who say they won’t vote for the NDAA include Sens. Ron Johnson (R-WI), Rick Scott (R-FL), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Mike Braun (R-IN).
Military Recruiting Faces Steep Challenges
In September, the Pentagon warned that the armed forces were facing a recruiting crisis not seen over the last 50 years. Stephanie Miller, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy, told lawmakers the DOD would miss its goals. She called it an “unprecedented mission gap” and a “reason for concern.”
The Army faces the most significant hurdle with a 10,000 active duty personnel shortage. Service leaders say the numbers could fall from 466,000 active-duty soldiers to as low as 445,000 by October 2023. In addition, the Marines are also struggling to recruit but are experiencing high retention rates.
The senators’ announcement comes as several cases make their way through the courts. On Tuesday, November 29, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Air Force members who requested a religious exemption. The court ordered an injunction protecting 10,000 active-duty, reserve, Space Force, and Air National Guard members. The judge said the military granted medical and administrative exemptions but only 135 to those requesting religious accommodations and already planning to leave the Air Force.
In late November, a story emerged that the US Naval Academy denied diplomas to midshipmen who finished their academic requirements but refused the COVID vaccine on religious grounds.