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With Vaccination Deadlines Approaching, Commanders Asked to Use Compassion in Enforcement

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The U.S. military services have all set deadlines for when service members must be vaccinated against COVID-19. The first of those deadlines, for active duty Air Force personnel, arrives tomorrow.

Two soldiers wearing face masks and gloves use syringes to draw medicine from a small bottle.
Preparing A Vaccine
Army Spc. Kailee Soares prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during a drive to vaccinate Hawaii National Guardsmen assigned to the COVID-19 response in the town of Hanapepe on Hawaii's Kauai island, Jan. 12, 2021. The Hawaii National Guard's Joint Task Force continued its COVID-19 vaccinations of soldiers and airmen assigned to support Kauai County. The vaccines and the National Guard medical team were airlifted to Kauai County via a Hawaii Army National Guard Black Hawk.
Photo By: Air Force Master Sgt. Andrew Jackson, Hawaii Air National Guard
VIRIN: 210112-Z-IX631-004
A person holds a vaccine record card.
Record Card
A Department of Health and Human Services employee holds a COVID-19 vaccine record card Nov. 13, 2020, in Washington D.C. The cards will be sent out as part of vaccination kits from Operation Warp Speed.
Photo By: EJ Hersom, DOD
VIRIN: 201113-D-DB155-005M

Right now, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said about 97% of the total force has been vaccinated with at least one dose. During a press conference today at the Pentagon, he told reporters this includes 99% of sailors, 97% of airmen, and 93% of Marines. Among soldiers, he said, the vaccination rate is above 90%.  

"So just in terms of first dosage, there's been a lot more progress and we continue to see the men and women of the force doing the right thing — which is getting vaccinated," he said.

Kirby said commanders have plenty of options for enforcing vaccine mandates short of resorting to actions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has asked commanders to execute those options first.


"I think the secretary has been very clear with the leaders of the military departments that he wants them to execute the mandate with a sense of compassion and understanding," he said. "I know he made this clear to them that he knows as a former commander himself, that leaders have a range of tools available to them to help troops make the right decisions for themselves, for the units, for the families, short of using the Uniform Code of Military Justice, therefore, short of punitive measures."

Nevertheless, Kirby said, the vaccine mandates are lawful orders, and commanders may eventually need to escalate the pressure they put on servicemembers to get vaccinated.

"He also trusts that commanders ... will ultimately do what they need to do for the readiness of their unit, and if that comes to doing something of a punitive nature, they certainly have that right and that authority," Kirby said.

An airman gives a COVID-19 vaccine to a senior Air Force officer
Commander Vaccination
Air Force Senior Airman Ashton Gilbert, a medical technician assigned to the 673d Healthcare Operations Squadron, administers the first of a two-dose series of a COVID-19 vaccine to Air Force Lt. Gen. David Krumm, Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, Alaskan Command and Eleventh Air Force commander at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Jan. 4, 2021. Upon receiving the initial shipment of the vaccine, JBER began inoculating personnel following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's prioritization guidelines. The vaccines are part of Operation Warp Speed, a national initiative to accelerate the development, production and distribution of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.
Photo By: Air Force Airman 1st Class Samuel Colvin
VIRIN: 210104-F-YL679-1029
Someone wearing gloves holds a box of the first doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccines.
First Doses
Kimberly Leonard, deputy director for narcotic enforcement, assigned to the New York State Department of Health, oversees the safe handling and storage of the first doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine at the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, N.Y., March 3, 2021. The National Guard has hundreds of guardsmen deployed to help staff the vaccination site.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Sebastian Rothwyn, Army National Guard
VIRIN: 210303-A-RV314-828

When it comes to service members being deployment ready, based on their vaccination status, Kirby said the secretary of defense is relying on the individual services and commanders to make those calls.

"The secretary will delegate that specific decision down to commanders at the appropriate level," Kirby said. "When you say deployable, what does that mean? They're different units, different services, define deployments differently. And so he wants to let the services manage that decision-making process for themselves and the commander specifically. Obviously, though, he wants as much of the force as possible vaccinated, because he still believes that a vaccinated force is a more ready force."

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