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Short of the Mandate They Crave, Military Leaders Race to Vaccinate Troops

  • July 31, 2021

That may soon change. Late Thursday night, the Pentagon announced that all military and civilian employees would be asked to prove they were vaccinated or submit to mandatory masks, physically distancing and regular testing, as well as travel restrictions, just as President Biden demanded of the rest of federal civilian employees. The new requirements take the armed forces one step closer to a mandate.

Compulsory shots are standard operating procedure for the military, which, starting in boot camp, requires troops to get vaccinated for at least a dozen diseases. For now, though, the military is trying to navigate how to get more troops to take the shot without simply issuing an order.

Of the 1,336,000 active-duty members of the military, about 64 percent are fully vaccinated, above the 60 percent of Americans over 18 who are fully vaccinated. But for the military, that rate is unacceptably low, because it is difficult to deploy troops who have not been vaccinated to countries with stringent local restrictions, and because a surge of the virus among troops can cripple readiness.

Military leaders cannot require the shots because the coronavirus vaccines are not fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and are authorized only on an emergency basis. Mr. Biden could order mandatory vaccination for troops, but has been reluctant to exercise that authority, and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has previously said he would not be comfortable with a mandate until the vaccines are fully approved.

Though coronavirus vaccines have become a political flash point in the civilian population, several military leaders said they did not expect much resistance if an order was issued because troops were accustomed to getting mandatory shots. But, they added, while following orders is central to military culture, so too is the soldier’s axiom “never volunteer for anything.”

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