Required vaccines are nothing new for the US military. Yet the topic has garnered newfound attention following the COVID-19 vaccination order. Are you considering joining the military, or do you already serve in the Armed Forces? If so, be prepared to adhere to the Department of Defense (DoD) vaccination mandates as part of the requirement to serve your country. If you choose not to get vaccinated, you’ll have to face the consequences.
Why are Certain Vaccines Mandated in the Military?
As a service member, you can expect to be vaccinated when you enter basic training, before you deploy to a foreign country, and at other times depending on your role and geographic region. The US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) argues that vaccines are crucial for military service members because of the increased risk of contracting preventable diseases while serving. These risks include:
- Living in close quarters with others who may be ill
- Traveling to countries with low vaccination rates
- Serving in areas where food and water could be contaminated
- Being exposed to infected mosquitoes
In addition, the diseases included on the list of required vaccines are highly transmissible and fully preventable. By keeping more service members healthy, the military remains ready to serve at a moment’s notice. Healthy troops also decrease demands on military hospitals and clinics.
Furthermore, all required vaccines have been proven safe and effective against the diseases they are intended to prevent. The DoD mandates vaccines to protect you, your fellow service members, your family, and your community from serious diseases using the best medical tool available—vaccination.
What are the Consequences for Refusing to get Vaccinated?
The willingness to receive required vaccines is a relevant factor when determining fitness to serve in the military or a leadership position. The potential consequences for refusing to comply are outlined in Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). This article addresses the failure to obey a lawful general order or regulation. If found guilty, possible consequences include punitive and/or administrative actions, including:
- Bad conduct discharge
- Forfeiture of all pay and allowances
- Up to six months of confinement
Which Vaccines Does the DoD Require?
Most of the vaccines service members are expected to receive are the same as the general public based on age, health, vaccination history, and travel plans. Depending on your branch and deployment location, the DoD may require you to vaccinate against the following diseases:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Japanese encephalitis
- Measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR)
- Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTap)
- Varicella (chickenpox)
- Yellow fever
The COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate is on Shaky Ground
In August 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signed the controversial COVID-19 vaccine mandate, requiring all military personnel to be fully or partially vaccinated against the disease spreading rapidly and shutting down economies around the globe. But in August 2022, several House Republicans urged Austin to rescind the mandate, citing the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as evidence that the “outdated and obsolete” measure should end.
The group, led by Rep. Mike Waltz (R-FL), submitted a letter stating:
“Some of the more restrictive COVID-19 guidelines are no longer necessary now there is greater immunity in the general public due to natural immunity after recovery from COVID-19 infections and increasingly more effective pharmaceutical treatments for the disease.”
The effort to eliminate the mandate stems from “our already faltering military recruitment and retention efforts” that are only worsened by mandating a controversial vaccine. The letter cites the “approximately 45,000 National Guardsmen [who] are unable to participate in crucial training…due to the vaccine mandate.” Even so, National Guard Bureau Chief, Gen. Daniel Hokanson, said the COVID-19 vaccine “will improve readiness and help keep the promise to be ‘always ready, always there.’”
As of this writing, COVID-19 remains on the list of mandated vaccines, but that may soon change if conservative lawmakers continue pushing for change.
What are the Exemptions to Military Vaccine Mandates?
Are you reluctant to get the COVID-19 shot or other mandated vaccines? You’re not alone. Thousands of service members have been formally reprimanded for refusing to follow the vaccination order, and some reprimands have led to separations. The only argument against receiving mandated vaccines is to present an approved medical, administrative, or religious exemption. Accommodations are typically considered on a case-by-case basis.
However, in July 2022, District Court Judge Matthew McFarland granted a class-wide preliminary injunction that applies to thousands of service members in the Air Force and Space Force seeking a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate. The decision stemmed from a class-action lawsuit filed in February 2022 by active-duty service members stationed across the country. In March, McFarland blocked Air Force officials from disciplining those service members with demotions, discharges, and courts-martial for their refusal to comply.
His order stated:
“The world as we knew it changed in March of 2020 with COVID-19’s inception and the shutdown of most of the world. While a return to normalcy is desired, the cost of the return should never jeopardize religious liberty.”
McFarland noted that while the military allows for religious exemptions, very few have been granted. As of July, the Air Force had approved just 135 religious accommodation requests, while 2,847 requests remained pending. The judge’s temporary exemption will remain in place until the case is resolved.
Seek Legal Advice from a Military Lawyer
If you have concerns about the vaccines required for service members or questions about defending a medical, administrative, or religious exemption, reach out to Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law. With over a decade of experience as a military defense attorney and years as an Army JAG officer before that, Mr. Jordan is highly qualified to offer legal advice on this subject. Call us toll-free at 800-580-8034 or 254-853-0064 to speak directly with Mr. Jordan about your concerns.