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)

Since the start of the pandemic, 150,910 members of the military have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Military.com, and 21 have died. Despite the high number of infections, thousands of military members refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Approximately 359,000 troops have already received the first dose, and about 147,000 have gotten their second, according to Robert Salesses, acting assistant defense secretary for homeland defense and global security. But around one-third of military members refuse to take 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.

The reason so many members of the military refuse 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.”

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. 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.

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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