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

COLORADO SPRINGS — Three soldiers in camouflage were crowded around a table at a popular burrito place near Fort Carson on Friday, chewing over the announcement that the military might soon require all troops to get vaccinated for coronavirus. Two of the soldiers had already gotten the shot. One had not.

The military had ordered her to get a quiver of other vaccines, including the annual flu shot. The big difference with this one was that she finally had a choice.

“Honestly, if the Army wants you to do something, they’ll make you. It was still voluntary, so I just put it off,” the unvaccinated soldier said, adding that a busy schedule and fear of side effects had encouraged her delay.

The soldier declined to give her name because she was not authorized to speak to the news media but said although most of the soldiers she knows in the post’s 25,000 active duty troops are vaccinated, others have concerns and are taking advantage of a rare piece of digression not often granted to the rank and file.

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.”

At the same time, the U.S. military knows how deadly infectious diseases can be because it has been battling them for centuries.

In the winter of 1777, smallpox was savaging the Continental Army to the point that the ability to continue to fight was in doubt. Gen. George Washington proposed the first-ever mass inoculation by infecting healthy troops with the pus of their suffering comrades. The practice, which often led to illness but cut deaths drastically, was deeply polarizing. Many colonists viewed it as a plot of the devil, or worse, the crown. Some colonies banned the practice, and in Virginia rioters attacked doctors who offered the treatment.

But Washington felt he had no choice, telling one of his medical officers that “necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure.”

The mass inoculation ended the epidemic and may have been crucial to winning the war, said Carol R. Byerly, a military medicine historian.

“It was the beginning of the recognition that public health is a strategic weapon — and the military has been a leader in the field ever since,” Ms. Byerly said.

As new conflicts pushed U.S. troops into new corners of the world, diseases often killed far more people than the enemy did. Military doctors raced to develop ways to battle afflictions like typhoid and yellow fever. The troops, who to some extent were used as guinea pigs, were typically given no say.

“There has always been protest,” Ms. Byerly said, pointing to World War I, when many soldiers and their families started a letter-writing campaign against a newly developed smallpox vaccine that became the first universally compulsory vaccination in the Army. “But the military knows vaccines are the best weapon, so even if there is controversy, leaders thought it was worthwhile.”

But ordering compulsory vaccination carries its own risks to military readiness. In the 1990s, the military tired to inoculate the entire force against the anthrax virus. Clusters of troops refused to comply. Hundreds were punished — some with other-than-honorable discharges. Others quit in protest. In one Air National Guard squadron, a quarter of the pilots quit rather than take the vaccine, sapping the unit’s ability to operate.

The anthrax vaccination effort was hampered by court cases and supply issues, and was eventually scaled down to only a small portion of high-risk troops.

Short of an order, the service branches are attempting to encourage members who are reluctant to take the coronavirus vaccine in ways they feel address their specific concerns.

Navy leaders have found that talking about the vaccine as both a weapon and agent of readiness is most effective. “Our sailors understand that if they go into a hostile environment or dangerous environment, they have to wear protective equipment,” said Rear Adm. Bruce L. Gillingham, the surgeon general of the Navy. “It’s biologic body armor.”

At Fort Bragg, N.C., a weekly podcast has featured troops talking with Army medical leaders about their concerns with the vaccine.

In a recent conversation, Sgt. Colt Joiner and Lt. Col. Owen Price discussed a frequent misconception raised by young soldiers: that they face greater risk of dying from the side effects from a shot than from Covid-19. It is a belief that is increasingly worrying military commanders as data on the Delta variant shows high rates of serious illness among young unvaccinated people.

“Me being a 24-year-old guy,” Sergeant Joiner said, “I think at this time it’s not as much a risk to me. Right now I just don’t see it as a priority.”

The idea that the coronavirus is a threat only to older Americans “is eroding,” Colonel Price told him. “The percentage of people your age seeing those effects are going up.”

At Fort Carson this week, an officer in a brigade getting ready to deploy proudly said its vaccination rate was 71 percent, well above the Army average. Success, he said, was about providing leadership — having senior enlisted soldiers and officers get the shot, explain their choice to junior soldiers and encourage them to volunteer.

But was that volunteering actually “voluntelling” — the cherished Army tradition of leaders telling troops that they are absolutely expected to do something that is technically voluntary?

When asked, the officer laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “There’s probably a little of that.”

Dave Philipps reported from Colorado Springs, and Jennifer Steinhauer from Washington.

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