The Department of Defense has been mandated by the president to vaccinate all Airmen and Guardians by November 2. That date has come and passed. What is going to happen to those who “Just Say No”? 

With COVID-19 still the top headline in nearly every country, the U.S. has already split into two factions: those who want the vaccine, and those who don’t. State governments say one thing, city governments another, and the federal government is saying it all. DoD falls under the Fed, and the Air Force falls under DoD. It has always been a case of “do what we say or else” as far as the military is concerned. And now “or else” is taking on a whole new meaning.

As of November 2, more than 10,000 Airmen, Guardians, and recruits have not received the “mandatory” vaccination. Some of these may have simply not gotten the shots, but most appear to be refusals. Some have applied for waivers on the grounds of religious or medical reasons. Not all, though. The Air Force has not released numbers of those requesting exemption, or on what grounds the exemption was requested. No matter the reasons, these still are refusals to vaccinate. It all comes down to what the service will do about it.

This has gotten ridiculous. Is there a clear, lawful mandate for all servicemembers to get an approved COVID-19 vaccination or not? Are punishments for refusal clearly spelled out for everyone to understand? Do new recruits’ enlistment packages make any mention of the vaccine? Are requirements the same across the board for all who work in the Air Force or Space Force?

The answer to all these questions is no. On August 24, 2021, the Secretary of Defense issued an order that all servicemembers would be vaccinated by November 22, but left implementation and timelines up to the individual branches. Individual branches, down to the lowest levels, have been given broad leeway on how to handle vaccine refusals. Federal civilian employees are also required to receive the vaccine, and implementation has been delegated to the lowest levels there as well.

What this all means is commanders now have a sh*t-ton more responsibility on their desks. Is the vaccine mandatory or not? Does refusal mean discharge or not? Will uniformed servicemembers watch as honorable service is slowly stripped away from Airmen and Guardians who do not want this vaccine? I watched a young E-4 slowly walk DOWN the promotion ladder for an inability to get his waist below 38 inches. Airman of the Quarter, regularly recognized for his hard work, could out-run nearly everyone on the track and make us all look like chumps in calisthenics. Three stripes, then two, then one, and finally none. Because he was too stocky for the Air Force image. Will we watch this happen again?

I have been called an anti-vaxxer for my opinion regarding this vaccine. Family members and friends have gotten irate toward me because I am not ready to get this shot. Even though I have received nearly every vaccination known to man, sometimes mandatory and sometimes voluntarily, I don’t yet trust this one. I still wear a mask when I need to; get tested when required; and follow any requirements when out and about. I don’t take unnecessary risks, and do my best to respect others’ regarding COVID. Will my receiving a vaccine keep you from getting sick? Nope. Will you getting a vaccine keep you from getting sick? Maybe. Why, then, do I need to get the vaccine? To make you feel better? Not a good enough reason to me. 

Airman getting COVID vaccine
Following the Department of Defense’s phased vaccination plan, Reserve Citizen Airmen received their COVID-19 vaccinations at MacDill Air Force Base, FL, during Sunday of the April Unit Training Assembly. The vaccine is currently voluntary and administered based on a phased approach starting with mission-critical and those that are at heightened risk of exposure. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Alexis Suarez/USAF)

This is where our Air Force is now. I understand we give up certain rights and freedoms when we put on the uniform. I understand lawful orders are just that: lawful. I even understand why there is a mandate in the military to get the vaccine. What I do not understand is the arbitrary nature of this “mandate.” 

Merriam-Webster defines a mandate as “an authoritative command especially: a formal order from a superior court or official to an inferior one.” There it is. An authoritative command, or formal order. Do this, not this. Does that mean if I do NOT do this, something bad will happen to me? Yes! Or, no. Maybe?

Mandate the vaccine to everyone in the military without medical exemption, including those civilian employees who work closely with uniformed members, or don’t. Make it a requirement for continued employment, or don’t. Does the coronavirus care what religion you associate with? Does it care if you object to the nature of the vaccine? Can it tell the difference between active duty and civilian? Since it doesn’t have a brain, I sincerely doubt it. 

If the coronavirus is the deadly pandemic it has been portrayed as, why would there be any exemptions at all? If readiness is so impacted by illness and hospitalizations and quarantine, why exempt anyone? Religious freedom in the military is guaranteed unless readiness is affected. If a yarmulke or turban makes donning a gas mask impossible, sorry, but it’s got to go. If it is Sabbath, but mission dictates you have to work, they’ll try to make it up to you, but no guarantees. Why is this global pandemic any different? 

Ok, fair enough, if you are allergic to something in the vaccine and you may become incapacitated or die from it, maybe that’s a good reason to be exempt. If you’re 80 days from retirement and you do not work in close proximity of anyone and you’re not about to deploy maybe then an exemption could be granted. But no. Even though provisions exist to allow other exemptions due to being a “short-timer,” they’re not for this vaccine.

 A recently released FAQ letter from the Department of the Air Force states refusal to get vaccinated MAY result in punishment under the UCMJ. Commanders have a “range of… tools available, up to, and including, discharge” if a member refuses to vaccinate. This is after providing counseling and other informal efforts at securing compliance. Basically, members are required to get vaccinated, and if they don’t, commanders have the authority to punish them.

A gavel lays on the Uniform Code of Military Justice inside the 28th Bomb Wing courtroom at Ellsworth Air Force Base, SD, July 17, 2018. The UCMJ is the primary legal code that governs all internal military justice matters. (Photo by Airman 1st Class Nicolas Z. Erwin/USAF)

Can a commander simply counsel a servicemember for refusal? According to the UCMJ, yes. But the vaccine is mandatory, right? If I am counseled and still refuse, can I be required to get tested every week? Who knows? What if I am vaccinated, but my workmate has an exemption? Is he safe around me? Am I safe around him? 

I am all for vaccines. Without vaccines, polio would have ravaged this country. Measles and mumps would be killing or scarring thousands of children every year in the United States. Maybe even the flu would kill many thousands more than it already does. As of November 4, 2021, the CDC reports that the U.S. has had 46,180,190 reported cases of COVID since the first reported death in February 2020. Of those cases, 747,970 have died from the virus or complications thereof. That is a mortality rate of 1.6 percent. I am sure complications from COVID are still being discovered and understood, but that’s the point.

If you want the vaccine, go and get it. If you want your kids vaccinated, go for it. That’s your right. If I don’t want to get vaccinated, that is my right. If I was still wearing the uniform, that right would have been gone. The Air Force, and the Pentagon as a whole, place all sorts of restrictions and requirements on nearly every aspect of living. If they can take you from your home and stick you halfway around the world without so much as an excuse, they should be able to inoculate you with whatever the FDA says is good to go.

But those rules need to be consistent. Either mandate it across the board or don’t. Either make punishment equal across the board or forget the whole thing. This wishy-washy crap is out of hand.