Why are so many military members refusing to take the COVID vaccine?

A line of military members fill out paperwork to receive COVID vaccine
Photo via The National Guard/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: Aug. 2, 2021

Since the start of the pandemic, at least 300,000 members of the military have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Military.com, and about 350 have died. Despite the high number of infections, thousands of military members refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

As of early February, about one-third of military members had refused to take the vaccine, but by late April, about 35% of U.S. troops had gotten at least one vaccine dose. By late June, 68% of active-duty troops had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

That leaves thousands of military members without inoculation, and many are uninterested in receiving one. The percentage of military members with a vaccine vastly outnumbers the amount of regular citizens with a vaccine, but that hasn’t eased concerns from officials. Military members often spend the majority of their time in very close contact, making proper social distancing and mask-wearing difficult or outright impossible. This could allow COVID-19 to spread rapidly through the ranks.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said those military members who were eligible but who declined to get inoculated are “propagating this outbreak” and “are innocently and inadvertently being part of the problem.”

A number of U.S. healthcare workers also have refused to take the vaccine—and are getting suspended for it—while large percentages of police officers and many correctional officers have taken the same position. Interestingly, it also goes the other way. In Scotland, one alternative health business owner said she would no longer cater to people who have been vaccinated.

But this doesn’t seem to be a problem for some countries, like Spain, which reportedly only has a refusal rate of 2%. By late May 2021, 85% of the Canadian military had received first doses.

By early April, the numbers of U.S. military members who were getting the vaccine were rising, according to Military Times. “As we move through those tiers, we know who accepted, who didn’t come in or didn’t try to make an appointment, that sort of thing,” said Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, the director of the Defense Health Agency. “But when we know who’s gotten it, we circle back to those who haven’t and offer it again, on an iterative basis. And as we offer it, many who at first declined the opportunity are now taking us up on that opportunity.”

Later in April, more Army soldiers wanted the vaccine, and Army Brig. Gen. Matthew Smith, who leads the Army’s vaccination operations, told Stars & Stripes, “At this point, the demand far outstrips the supply.”

The reason so many members of the military had refused the COVID vaccine is harder to pin down. Brig. Gen. Edward Bailey, the surgeon for Army Forces Command, has heard a number of reasons from individual soldiers, like one who told him “the Army always tells me what to do, they gave me a choice, so I said no.”

Agreeing with that sentiment, Sgt. Tracey Carroll told the New York Times, “The Army tells me what, how, and when to do almost everything. They finally asked me to do something and I actually have a choice, so I said no.”

The more likely reason behind the high number of refusals has to do with the military’s history with vaccines, according to Defense One. During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, the Defense Department and FDA implemented a rule that allowed the military to require vaccines for military personnel. Defense One estimates that upward of 650,000 soldiers received the IND Anthrax Vaccine Absorbed (AVA) over the next decade.

In the following years, Defense One reports that 85% of those that received the anthrax vaccine experienced adverse side effects. These included “severe fatigue, joint pain, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and respiratory disorders,” according to CCK Law. That pushed many to believe that Gulf War Syndrome and anthrax vaccine side effects were one and the same.

This incident is still fresh in many military members’ minds, and it may be fueling vaccine distrust, according to Defense One. In lieu of outright requiring military members to receive the vaccine, Pentagon leaders are attempting to lead by example. Several high-level leaders rushed to receive vaccinations, in hopes of easing fears around any potential side effects.

Some military leaders are urging a far more commanding approach, however. U.S. House Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.), a major general in the Army National Guard, believes a mandate requiring vaccines is the best route. By mid-July 2021, there seemed to be a growing acceptance that mandatory vaccinations could happen, and President Biden was walking even closer to that line by the end of July.

A number of service members would likely balk at this, but Kelly insists it is necessary. He and Rhode Island Rep. Jim Langevin (D) have noted disrupted operations and exercises caused by the pandemic. A mandatory vaccine wouldn’t reverse any of the damage already done, but it could boost future efforts.

In March 2021, though, President Biden signed into law a requirement that the Department of Veterans Affairs provide COVID-19 vaccinations to all veterans who want one.

Despite concerns from military members, U.S. Second Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis believes the vaccine will eventually be mandatory.

“We cannot make it mandatory yet,” Lewis said. “I can tell you we’re probably going to make it mandatory as soon as we can, just like we do with the flu vaccine.”

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Sources: Defense One, Military.com, CCK Law, NBC News

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