Our brave men and women in uniform have dedicated themselves to protecting the country against grave threats to national defense. The question on everyone’s minds is whether military personnel should be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine to guard against a microscopic threat to their personal health. And once a full mandate is in place, what happens to those who don’t want to be vaccinated?
The President Requests a COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate
At the end of July, President Joe Biden asked the Department of Defense (DoD) to explore how and when the military would add COVID-19 vaccines to its list of required vaccinations. He stopped short of imposing a mandate himself, but he ordered the military to start taking steps toward making this vaccination mandatory.
In his remarks, President Biden said COVID-19 vaccines are important for military troops because they often serve in countries where vaccination rates are low and the coronavirus runs rampant. He argued that it only makes sense to protect military service members as much as possible from contracting COVID-19.
At the time, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin agreed with the president’s sentiments and encouraged all military personnel to get vaccinated. However, he wanted to wait until the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued full approval for at least one of the vaccines before making them mandatory. Three varieties of COVID-19 vaccines have been available under emergency use authorization (EUA) since December 2020, but the FDA requires additional safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality to fully approve a product.
The Pfizer Vaccine Receives FDA Approval
On August 23, 2021, the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine, which will now be marketed as Comirnaty, for people ages 16 and older. The vaccine is still available under EUA for people ages 12 to 15 and as a third dose for certain immune-compromised individuals.
“The FDA’s approval of this vaccine is a milestone as we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, MD. “While millions of people have already safely received COVID-19 vaccines, we recognize that for some, the FDA approval of a vaccine may now instill additional confidence to get vaccinated.”
The Military Mandates COVID-19 Vaccines
In response to the FDA approval, DoD spokesperson John Kirby stated that the military is “going to move forward making that vaccine mandatory.” The hope is that the vaccine mandate will promote a “healthy and ready force,” along with improved health and safety in the communities around the country in which service members live. However, Kirby did not mention whether mandates would eventually apply to the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines.
The mandate comes just as the military experienced its deadliest month since the pandemic began, with five service member deaths reported from August 11 to 18. Before that, the Pentagon reported one or two service member deaths per month, with a high of four in November 2020. In total, the military has reported 34 deaths caused by COVID-19. As of early August, about 65 percent of active-duty military personnel were fully vaccinated, compared to about 59 percent of all eligible Americans.
Austin is seeking the president’s approval to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required shots for military personnel by mid-September. Until then, commanders have a “range of tools” available to work with service members who decline to receive the vaccine without resorting to disciplinary measures. However, once the mandate takes full effect, “there could be administrative and disciplinary repercussions” for anyone who fails to get vaccinated.
Options for Those Who Don’t Want a COVID-19 Vaccine
Despite FDA approval and a mandate for military troops, some service members are reluctant to get the COVID-19 shot. If you fit into this category, you may wonder about your legal rights. Is it lawful to require service members to receive the vaccine? Could you face dismissal if you refuse to comply?
Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law was interviewed for a CNN article on this very topic. He said that because the vaccine is now FDA-approved and the Pentagon has issued a mandatory order, it may be difficult to formulate a legal argument. After all, “you’re looking at what is in the best interest of the service and your duty to your country.” Still, there could be religious or medical exemptions to receiving the vaccine, which must be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Seek Legal Advice from a Military Lawyer
If you have concerns about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine or want answers to other military law questions, Joseph L. Jordan is here to serve you. As a former Army JAG officer and accomplished trial lawyer, Mr. Jordan has the knowledge and experience required to defend service members against any UCMJ violation. Call us toll free at 800-580-8034 or 254-221-6411 today to speak directly with Mr. Jordan about your concerns.