The COVID-19 vaccine mandate is contributing to the military’s recruitment troubles, the top general in the Marine Corps said on Saturday.
Speaking during a panel at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger defended the vaccine mandate as a necessity for keeping the force healthy. But he indicated the mandate has posed problems for recruiting in pockets of the United States where vaccine misinformation is prevalent.
“Where it is having an impact for sure is on recruiting, where in parts of the country there's still myths and misbeliefs about the back story behind it,” Berger said.
Speaking to reporters at the conference later Saturday afternoon, Berger added that the mandate has posed an issue for recruiting in the South in particular.
“There was not accurate information out early on and it was very politicized and people make decisions and they still have those same beliefs. That's hard to work your way past really hard to work,” he said in response to a question from Military.com.
“Small areas, big factor,” he added when pressed about how much the mandate has contributed to recruiting issues. “You talk to me in the cafeteria, and one of my first questions is, ‘Do I have to get that vaccine?’ And you go, ‘Yeah, you do.’ Ok, I’ll talk to you later. It's that fast.”
The military has faced a recruiting crisis over the last year as it tackles the twin difficulties of increasing numbers of Americans unqualified to serve and decreasing numbers of those who are qualified being interested in serving.
One Pentagon study found that only 23% of young Americans would be eligible, pointing primarily to obesity and minor legal infractions related to things like marijuana use as precluding the vast majority from putting on the uniform.
The Marines hit their recruiting goal in fiscal year 2022, which ended in September, but had to dip into their pool of delayed entry applicants to do so, meaning they’ll have more difficulties meeting the goal in the future.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 vaccine was politicized by GOP media figures and politicians almost from the start, with Republicans baselessly questioning the safety and efficacy of a vaccine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is the safest, most effective way to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death.
Republicans have also argued the mandate is exacerbating the recruitment crisis by kicking out service members at a time when the military needs to retain as many people willing to serve as it can.
Berger’s comments come as a group of Republican lawmakers is threatening to try to hold up the annual defense policy bill unless Congress votes on ending the vaccine mandate. Earlier this week, 13 GOP senators vowed to vote against advancing the National Defense Authorization Act if they don’t get a vote on an amendment to end the mandate. The group so far lacks support from Senate Republican leadership, meaning they are not likely to reach the 41 senators needed to actually block the defense bill.
Speaking alongside Berger at the conference, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., alluded to the defense bill debate and foreshadowed continued efforts to end the mandate for all of the services when Republicans take control of the House in January, saying “we're going to be considering that policy this week and certainly in the next Congress.”
Unlike some Republicans, Gallagher said he believes the mandate is a lawful order, but still opposes it.
“I would submit that if 33% of 16 to 20-year-olds are not going to get the vaccine the vaccine mandate has to play a role” in addressing the recruitment crisis, Gallagher said. “I think we’ve dismissed 7,834 last time I checked. That's like two army brigades. That's a lot of people right when we need people. I think the order was lawful. I'm not quite there on the readiness argument.”
The vast majority of service members have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine. In the Marines, about 96% of the active-duty force is fully vaccinated, according to the Corps’ monthly COVID update released Thursday.
But the politicization of the vaccine has posed headaches for the military, as thousands of service members have refused to get the shot. More than 3,700 Marines have been separated from the service over vaccine refusal, according to the monthly update.
The military already mandated more than a dozen vaccines before the COVID-19 shot, something Berger referenced during his panel.
“That's what you need to maintain a healthy unit that can deploy on ship, ashore, it doesn't matter,” Berger said.
Many of the troops who haven’t taken the vaccine have asked for religious exemptions to the mandate, often citing concerns about the use of fetal tissue and beliefs about abortion. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines used fetal cell lines from an aborted fetus in the 1970s to test their efficacy but did not use the tissue in production. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine did use fetal cell lines during production.
This summer, the Pentagon approved a version of the vaccine, Novavax, that did not use fetal tissue at any part in its development or production, which would allow service members to meet the mandate.
Courts have barred some of the services, including the Marines, from taking action against some troops who have requested religious exemptions while lawsuits against the mandate are considered.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.