Kentucky lawmakers raise concerns with military vaccine mandate

Published: Aug. 16, 2021 at 1:03 PM EDT

WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - The U.S. military is moving forward with plans to require all members to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 by Sept. 15. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says this new requirement is critical to maintaining military readiness, and President Joe Biden supports the measure.

Supporters say this new mandate will help ensure the safety of the Armed Forces, while veterans are pushing back on the decision.

Kentucky Representative Thomas Massie and 30 House Republicans are backing a bill that would block the military from mandating the Covid-19 vaccine.

Fellow Kentucky Republican, Senator Rand Paul, is also a vocal critic of forced vaccinations.

“I think it’s overkill,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “I’m against the mandates. I think it’s a terrible idea.”

Paul – a doctor who has sparred with Doctor Anthony Fauci at recent Senate hearings – says the vaccine should be voluntary and that most service members face a low risk of severe infection due to age and fitness levels.

“If you look at our military recruits – young men and women – they’re some of the fittest people in our country,” said Paul.

Hiram Sasser – a veteran and executive general counsel for First Liberty Institute – says the military will likely see a wave of exemption requests on medical and religious grounds. Sasser believes federal law protects employees with deeply-held religious objections to the vaccine.

“I think it’s going to be a real problem with the department of defense. Now, can they overcome their requirements under the religious freedom restoration act to enforce the mandate? It’s possible but they’re going to have to show up with a significant amount of evidence at the courthouse,” said Hiram Sasser, First Liberty Institute executive general counsel.

Critics of the new vaccine mandate fear service members will leave the military or be kicked out if they refuse Covid-19 vaccination. Failure to obey an order could lead to a variety of punishments, up to dishonorable discharge and loss of benefits.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby addressed questions recently about religious exemptions, and said each individual service branch plays a role in considering such requests.

“We take freedom of religion and worship seriously in the military - it’s one of the things that we sign up to defend,” said John Kirby. “And so it’s something that’s done very carefully.”

Former Secretary of the Navy Sean O’Keefe strongly supports the vaccine mandate. He points to the Covid-19 outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt early in the pandemic, which sickened 1,200 sailors and killed one.

“This virus isn’t discriminatory. It will take out people with unbelievably great health conditions,” said Sean O’Keefe, former Secretary of the Navy.

O’Keefe, who is currently a professor at the Syracuse University Maxwell School, says given troops must travel all over the world and work in tight quarters, the virus poses a unique threat to national security. O’Keefe believes the vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective, and the best weapon against the virus.

“This delta variant is proving a capacity to move very quickly...this is in a category of a no-brainer”,” said O’Keefe about the decision.

O’Keefe believes a mandate in the military will also encourage strong public health measures across the board.

“I think that would send a powerful message not just within military forces but throughout our society,” said O’Keefe.

The Pentagon says more than a million service members are already fully-vaccinated, and the remainder must follow suit next month.

The Department of Defense requires 17 total vaccines, under varying conditions for service members. A spokesperson for the department says it is unlikely any one service member would be required to take all of those shots since several vaccines are region-specific and depend on the nature of a member’s assigned duties.

The Department of Defense reports that 29 service members have died from the virus, cumulatively. So far, there have been 217,982 confirmed cases, 1,962 hospitalizations, and 208,287 reportedly recovered from Covid-19.

Photojournalist/Editor Tyler Smith contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 Gray DC. All rights reserved.