TEXAS VIEW: Vax mandates still creating problems for DOD

THE POINT: It is wasteful to boot good people over a vaccine, but our nation can’t afford to have a force weakened by disease.

Just as it seemed the COVID vaccine had faded into the normalcy of our post-pandemic world, Republican politicians around the country rekindled their public outcry against the shot.

GOP lawmakers wrote legislation into the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act to repeal the military’s COVID vaccine mandate, which they claim hurts recruiting and retention. The White House and Defense Department say the requirement should stay.

The disagreement marks the latest skirmish in in the annual fight to fund the military for the new year. Instead of larger issues of national security in the $847 billion bill, the conversation has turned to vaccines.

Recently, the House passed the NDAA with language requiring the military to end its COVID vaccine mandate, but the bill still needs a Senate vote and President Joe Biden’s signature.

As we approach 2023, Congress must pass the NDAA and let the Defense Department handle its COVID vaccine policies.

“We lost a million people to this virus,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters recently, according to the Associated Press. “A million people died in the United States of America. We lost hundreds in DOD. So, this mandate has kept people healthy.”

“I’m the guy” who ordered the mandate, Austin added. “I support continuation of vaccinating the troops.”

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters the vaccines are “a health and readiness issue for the force” and Biden “continues to believe that all Americans, including those in the armed forces, should be vaccinated and boosted for COVID-19.”

But calls to repeal the mandate have grown louder as the bill approaches the finish line.

California Republican and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Fox News “the bill will not move” without the mandate’s removal.

And on Nov. 30, a group of 20 governors, including Greg Abbott of Texas, sent a letter to House and Senate leaders urging them to end the military’s COVID vaccine mandate. They claim the requirement “creates a national security risk that severely impacts our defense capabilities abroad and our state readiness here at home.”

The services have discharged more than 8,400 military members for COVID vaccine refusal. But some in that number wanted out, were having other difficulties or were nearing the end of their contract.

As of Nov. 30, nearly 2 million service members were fully vaccinated, with another roughly 26,000 partially vaccinated.

“As a war-fighting organization, the health and readiness of our force is paramount,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, DOD spokesman, told reporters. “And vaccination for COVID is still a requirement.”

Navy retiree Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales, who represents part of San Antonio and voted for the bill, told the Express-News Editorial Board the military’s COVID vaccine mandates need to go.

“A lot of my constituents have reached out about that, and I’m excited to see that in there (the NDAA),” he said.

The services kicking out people with no compensation over vaccine refusal “takes it to another level,” Gonzales said. “It’s already hard enough as it is in the military.”

Perhaps it’s time for the DOD to update exemptions and consequences, but we must also acknowledge that following lawful orders is part of military service.

In their November letter, the GOP governors expressed concern.

“As Governors, our ability to respond to natural disasters and conduct emergency operations is contingent upon the strength and size of our National Guard units,” they wrote.

They signed off with: “As President Biden, himself, stated on September 18, 2022, ‘The pandemic is over.’”

COVID isn’t gone. But we are in a better place because of vaccines.

San Antonio Express-News