“Secretary Austin and I share an unshakable commitment to making sure our troops have every tool they need to do their jobs as safely as possible,” Biden said in a statement Monday. “These vaccines will save lives. Period. They are safe. They are effective. Being vaccinated will enable our service members to stay healthy, to better protect their families, and to ensure that our force is ready to operate anywhere in the world.”
The Pentagon announced Monday it will require members of the U.S. military to get vaccinated by Sept. 15; earlier if the vaccine receives full FDA approval or infection rates continue to rise.
Austin’s decision comes after Biden told defense officials to create a plan mandating the vaccine for troops as part of their campaign to increase vaccinations in the federal workforce. Governments and companies around the world have begun announcing similar mandates as the struggle with the Delta variant continues.
“We cannot let up in the fight against COVID-19, especially with the Delta variant spreading rapidly through unvaccinated populations. We are still on a wartime footing, and every American who is eligible should take immediate steps to get vaccinated right away,” Biden said.
The decision will add the vaccine to a list of other inoculations that military members are required to get. Service members can get as many as 17 vaccines, depending on where they are stationed. Troops often live and work closely together, increasing the risks of rapid spreading. A large outbreak of the virus in the military could affect America’s ability to defend itself in any national security crisis.
According to the Pentagon, more than 1 million troops are fully vaccinated and 237,000 others have received one shot. But some military members do not plan on receiving a dose.
Former Army lawyer Greg T. Rinckey said he has fielded calls from Marines and sailors wanting to know their rights and whether they could take any legal action if ordered to get vaccinated.
"A lot of U.S. troops have reached out to us saying, 'I don't want a vaccine that's untested, I'm not sure it's safe, and I don't trust the government's vaccine. What are my rights?'" Rinckey said.
Some unvaccinated service members have suggested they’d get the shot once it’s required, but others are outright opposed. Military officials have said that once the vaccine is mandated, a refusal could constitute failure to obey an order, and may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The Army also notes that if a soldier “fails to comply with a lawful order to receive a mandatory vaccine, and does not have an approved exemption, a commander may take appropriate disciplinary action.”
Service members can seek an exemption from any vaccine -- either temporary or permanent -- for a variety of reasons, including health issues or religious beliefs. Regulations involving other mandatory vaccines say, for example, that anyone who had a severe adverse reaction to the vaccine can be exempt, and those who are pregnant or have other conditions can postpone a shot.
“I am proud that our military women and men will continue to help lead the charge in the fight against this pandemic, as they so often do, by setting the example of keeping their fellow Americans safe,” Biden said.