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As deadlines near for service members to get COVID-19 vaccines, the vast majority have complied

Corpsman Yesenia Ocenasek, right, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Aviation Ordnanceman Gunner Collado in Newport News, Va. on Sept. 8.
Robert Stamer
U.S. Navy
Corpsman Yesenia Ocenasek, right, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Aviation Ordnanceman Gunner Collado in Newport News, Va. on Sept. 8.

The Pentagon says fewer than 10 percent of active duty troops remain totally unvaccinated. Some have requested exemptions; other face punishment.

After Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered America’s 1.4 million active duty service members to get COVID-19 vaccines, the service branches set their own deadlines for compliance.

The Air Force set the most ambitious deadline - November 2. The deadline in the Navy and the Marine Corps is November 28, and the Army's cutoff date is December 15.

The Department of Defense says more than 90 percent of active duty troops have received at least one vaccine dose. Some of the rest have requested medical or religious exemptions. Others face possible punishment for disregarding the order.

At the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, lines at the central immunization clinic were steady in mid-October, with a mix of uniformed service members and civilians awaiting the vaccine.

Each day, the clinic serves between 150 to 200 people, down from about 800 per day in January, right after the vaccine received its emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

Lt. John Barrow, the official in charge, says Navy leaders have been transparent with sailors about the vaccine and the requirement.

“We provide education, we have subject matter experts, and we have command instructions,” Barrow said. "And we tell them that there is a process in place if you choose not to.”

There’s also a built-in incentive. Right before ships leave port, Barrow sees a small bump in vaccinations, likely because immunized sailors can avoid onboard quarantine and masking protocols. He said more than 99 percent of the Navy has already received at least one dose.

Even with that, he’s had to dispel a few vaccine myths shared by sailors.

“That you became magnetic. The 5G. That it was a tracking device for the government to track you. Sterility in males and females. Those are the top ones that we had to show there is no evidence to support any of that,” Barrow said.

Commands throughout the services have adopted the same direct approach.

Air Force Lt Col. Matthew Kowalski oversees hundreds of security forces personnel at Joint Base San Antonio - Fort Sam Houston. Though he’s encountered only a handful of vaccine resistors, he says he treats every case as unique and tries to get to the root of the airman's concern -- whether it's medical, religious or ideological.

Higher-ups gave him a list of answers to frequently asked questions.

He said those include, “How the vaccine was developed, how the vaccine has been rolled out, what the role of the FDA has been. Certain ingredients of the vaccine that are in other vaccines or even other foods that we take daily.”

If a service member refuses the vaccine without an exemption, commanders have a stable of disciplinary options under military law, including administrative paperwork, nonjudicial punishment, or court-martial charges. Unvaccinated troops also can’t deploy or travel on military planes.

Those who remain unconvinced have found their options narrowing. One Marine, stationed at Parris Island, S.C., said she's among those who have refused the vaccine.
She asked to be identified only by her first name, Angel, because the Marines have started disciplinary action against her.

“My primary fear is that I really don't know how my body will react to it,” she said. “I'm just a strong believer that if it's not broken, don't try to fix it.”

Angel said she’s concerned the vaccine might make her ill because she has a family history of heart inflammation. But she’s also been influenced by some misleading or false claims she's heard about the vaccine that she's not sure whether to believe.

The stakes are high. She said she's already been counseled by leadership and told she could lose her health, education, and retirement benefits if she refuses a lawful order.

“It’s definitely taking a toll on me. Definitely stressing me out," she said. "It's a lot of confusion back and forth inside myself, in the sense of ‘Is it worth it or not?’”

Angel said she’s one of the only people in her unit who have formally refused the vaccine.

Kowalski, the security forces commander in San Antonio, said debates about the vaccine have pretty much stopped in his unit. He added that most rumors about vaccine safety have been naturally dispelled by time and peer acceptance.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Military and Veterans Reporter - Texas Public Radio
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