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Thinning the Ranks

Using vaccines as a political weapon, U.S. military leaders have wrecked the force’s combat readiness and morale, current and former soldiers tell Tablet

Clayton Fox
August 02, 2023

Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine

Under pressure from Republicans in Congress, the Defense Department announced at the start of this year that it would no longer require American service members to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The policy change faced fierce resistance from the military’s top brass, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. In a memo sent in January repealing the requirement for soldiers to be vaccinated, Secretary Austin continued to credit the vaccine with “the many lives we saved … and the high level of readiness we have maintained.”

But critics of the military’s COVID-19 policy, including active and former service members who spoke with Tablet for this article, tell a different story. They say that the requirement for troops to receive the new vaccines, which included those with natural immunity after recovering from previous COVID-19 infections, was damaging to morale and hurt the military’s combat readiness. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., has repeatedly pointed to medical data which suggests that enforcing mass vaccinations on a generally young and healthy population may have actually caused an increase in non-COVID-19 related health problems in the force, though the Defense Department has not provided him or Tablet with a clear interpretation of that data.

By the time the Pentagon announced it was ending the mandate, 96% of service members across the armed forces had been vaccinated. However, a significant number of troops declined the shots, objecting on religious, scientific, or medical grounds. Of those objectors, 8,339 were kicked out of the military, a loss that was particularly acute coming in the midst of the worst recruitment crisis in 50 years, which saw the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Air Force all struggling to attract or retain members. The number of ejected objectors might continue to rise, as more service members who declined to get the jab are penalized for “refusing to obey a lawful order.” Many of those who were forced out, meanwhile, were given a “general” discharge rather than an “honorable” one, putting them at a disadvantage for future employment.

While a 96% compliance rate suggests general cohesion and a functioning military, the lurking reality is that a large percentage of troops who got the vaccine appear to have done so under duress. Tablet spoke with eight active and former service people for this article who come from some of the Army’s most prestigious units, as well as the Coast Guard. They paint a picture of a force that is divided and embittered and say that many of their compatriots resented being forced to take the shots against their will or even conscience in order to keep food on the table for their families. One soldier estimated that as many as 90% of his unit didn’t want to get the shots, and that many who caved now feel they should have held out for the mandate to be repealed. Another said he only knew three people in his entire platoon that got the shots “of their own volition” prior to the implementation of the mandate.

John Frankman, who declined the shot and left the Army in July 2023 after eight years of active service, including three as a Green Beret, told Tablet, “I’m getting out specifically because of the shot, even though it’s not mandatory anymore. I’ve lost out on enough opportunities, it doesn’t seem worthwhile for me to stay in.”

An Army infantryman from an elite unit who wished to remain anonymous told Tablet that he saw a senior noncommissioned officer from his unit tell a group of vaccine holdouts that they “were the reason America was in decline.” A paratrooper who spoke with Tablet anonymously said that leadership in his unit began an intense campaign to pressure soldiers to get the COVID-19 vaccines months before the Army officially implemented its mandate on Aug. 24, 2021. The paratrooper says that he heard a company commander in his unit say that he would “make my soldiers’ lives as miserable as fucking possible until they get the shot.”

They paint a picture of a force that is divided and embittered and say that many of their compatriots resented being forced to take the shots against their will or even conscience in order to keep food on the table for their families.

For the commanders, meanwhile, who were tasked with enforcing public health positions that turned out to be false, there are now concerns about reputational damage. “Soldiers know your position. You can say some untruths [and] no one’s going to give you a hard time about that,” said one former company commander. “But when you’re changing the story every week and obviously just saying nonsense because your higher command is telling you that … I saw personally that we were alienating our rank and file in a big way. We were losing their trust, and I didn’t want to be a part of that.”

In many cases, commanders embraced these policies with a commitment that went beyond the zeal for enforcing Army policies that is common among junior officers, according to the paratrooper. Rather, he calls the push to make soldiers get the COVID-19 vaccine the single most “divisive and destructive” event he witnessed in the military in more than a decade of service. As he would later write in a formal complaint submitted to the Army that was reviewed by Tablet, the COVID-19 vaccination “became by far the most important issue in our brigade and in the division.” That memo continued:

In order to get reluctant soldiers to take these experimental vaccines, commanders […] were encouraged to use all manners of persuasion and bullying, and even to do things that were plainly illegal (such as denying soldiers the right to attend career-enhancing military schools based on their vaccination status).

From the military’s standpoint, the mandate was not just a matter of life and death but also of national security. If infections swept through the ranks due to troops refusing to take available vaccines, not only would that destroy morale and discipline, but it could also leave the country unable to respond to an attack or emergency.

The problem with this argument is twofold: First, COVID-19 never posed a significant acute risk to healthy young people—the very demographic that overwhelmingly makes up the military—which means the vaccination drive was, at best, unnecessary. And secondly, according to several sources, the military’s approach to the vaccines, rather than emphasizing combat readiness, was used as a disciplinary tool to enforce political conformity and punish independent thought and ideological dissent.

“I’ve seen everything from [Don’t Ask Don’t Tell] repealed to gay marriage legalized to people are allowed to put gay pride flags in their offices now,” said a member of an elite infantry unit with over a decade of service. The jarring thing, he explained, was that the same military that boasts about its tolerance became rigidly intolerant on the question of bodily autonomy and vaccines. “You can get exemptions for religious beards if you’re Muslim, you can get an exemption to wear headgear, instead of your issued hat. That’s fine. I’m all for it … If you can do the job you should be allowed to do it … But then for a vaccine that’s violating the Nuremberg Code, and all of the sudden we’re the problem, that’s what’s bizarre to me.”

Many of those who refused the vaccines did so on the grounds that the mandate violated the Nuremberg Code of ethics for “permissible medical experiments.” The first line of the code reads, “The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.” Those citing the code point out that these COVID vaccines had not even finished their clinical trials at the time troops were being pressured and/or mandated to take them, and were therefore being asked to sacrifice their Nuremberg derived rights. Health authorities in the U.S. dismiss that claim on the grounds that the vaccines had received emergency authorizations and were therefore not strictly “experimental.”

With two exceptions, all the soldiers who spoke with Tablet insisted that they remain anonymous—even those who are already out of the service. One former officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the Army’s legal branch, said: “The fact that I am not subject to the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice], that there is no way that they can touch me, and yet I still don’t want to identify myself, should tell you something.”

That attorney, along with several other soldiers interviewed for this article (all of whom come from different backgrounds and do not share a clear set of political views) painted a disturbing picture that went beyond concerns about vaccine mandates. Given how intensely polarized national debates around COVID became, the Pentagon’s vaccination push—even in a best case scenario—was likely to cause some dissension in the ranks. But according to these current and former service members, the policy was not the result of medical or warfighting needs. Rather, they say that the emphasis on vaccinations was part of a larger push to overtly politicize the military—one of the only institutions left in the U.S. that still retains a degree of broad bipartisan support.

It may be tempting to dismiss this account as merely the grumbling of an isolated group, but their concerns echo a larger public debate. A series of recent reports, insider leaks, and congressional hearings have highlighted the tension between the military’s newfound adoption of ideological causes and its traditional warfighting mission. Indeed, there is no real question that the military has become more ideological in recent years since the top brass, moving in step with the White House, now openly touts the embrace of progressive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies. The debate is over whether such policies strengthen the military, as leaders from Secretary Austin down insist they do, or cripple it as whistleblowers, watchdog groups, and conservative politicians have claimed.

Last October, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar acknowledged that the military uses racial preferences as a criteria for acceptance to military service academies like West Point and ROTC contracts. The crucial point in Prelogar’s argument, and one that has been echoed by dozens of senior military leaders, including in an amicus brief filed to the Supreme Court last fall ahead of its ruling on affirmative actions policies in university admissions, is that engineering racial diversity is not simply a moral or social good but an imperative of warfighting. “It​​ is a critical national security imperative to attain diversity within the officer corps. And, at present, it’s not possible to achieve that diversity without race-conscious admissions,” Prelogar testified to the Supreme Court last October.

This is how the difficult and divisive questions about vaccinations—were they really necessary for healthy young people? Did the government and medical authorities misrepresent their risks and benefits?—became truly explosive. The Pentagon now treats its medical policies, diversity goals, and national security missions as inseparable if not interchangeable. That makes it nearly impossible for the military to do an honest internal assessment of how specific decisions affected the force and the nation’s overall warfighting capacity.

While the Pentagon at present may be ill-equipped to act as its own auditor, there is still a vital need for a clear-eyed assessment of how and why the military imposed vaccine mandates, and what the consequences of those mandates have been so far.

The COVID-19 mandate forms part of a pattern of vaccination controversies in the U.S. military. In the first Gulf War, over 150,000 U.S. troops were vaccinated against the anthrax bacterium, which military brass feared might be used by Saddam Hussein on American troops. (Notably, the United States also sold Saddam spores and technology that might have allowed Iraq to produce weaponized anthrax.)

One problem with the anthrax vaccine was that any expected weaponization of anthrax would come through an inhaled exposure and the vaccine the military mandated had only been tested in humans against exposure through the skin. In spite of the fact that the anthrax vaccine wasn’t licensed for prevention of disease via inhalation, in 1998, the DoD pushed forward with a militarywide mandate. Subsequently, a small group of soldiers refused to take it, with at least 500 eventually being thrown out of the military. Along the way, many were placed in military prison for their refusals.

Prior to the mandates, in 1997, a new section was added to Title 10 of the U.S. Code, the consolidation and codification of the general and permanent laws of the United States, requiring the DoD to inform soldiers any time they are being asked to take an “investigational” drug, the reasons why, and any possible side effects that might arise, as well as garner consent for administration. The only way for informed consent to be waived is by a written waiver from the president, and only if it’s deemed necessary for national security. This was reaffirmed in an executive order signed by President Clinton in 1999. But, the DoD didn’t consider the anthrax vaccine investigational, in spite of it being used in an unauthorized manner, and so they didn’t feel the need to get a waiver.

In 2001, then Attorney General of Connecticut Richard Blumenthal advocated for the mandates to be thrown out due to the lack of a presidential waiver and concerns about quality control issues and FDA violations in its manufacturing. He wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld arguing that, “In effect, the military is forcing its personnel to serve as human guinea pigs for an unlicensed drug that has not been proven to be safe or effective.” Blumenthal, now a Democratic senator, has taken a very different view of the COVID vaccine. In January 2021 Blumenthal told reporters, “we need these vaccines to go in the arms of our veterans, and into the arms of all Americans.” Tablet has reached out to Sen. Blumenthal’s office for comment on why the unlicensed COVID vaccines were different from the unlicensed anthrax vaccines. As of publication, we have received no reply.

The anthrax vaccine mandate was thrown out after six years, with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issuing a permanent injunction in Doe v. Rumsfeld. But the legal backlash spurred the creation of an entirely new designation within the FDA, the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). Codified in the 2004 Project BioShield Act, Congress created a pathway for the FDA to authorize unapproved biologics for emergency use in an imagined bioterror attack. Wasting no time, the FDA granted the anthrax vaccines an EUA in January 2005, which then allowed the military to resume anthrax vaccinations, though only on a voluntary basis. By year’s end, the FDA had given the anthrax vaccine full licensure for use against inhalational anthrax, and the military mandates were back in force for troops headed to regions with a higher risk of biological warfare. Looking back, Dale Saran, a former Marine aviator and JAG who represented anthrax vaccine refusers, and who is now a civil attorney, told Tablet that he believes, “Anthrax was the trial run.” Saran thinks that at least some of what drove the push for COVID-19 vaccines inside the military is simply profit. “The biggest government contractors have always been the Raytheon’s … All of a sudden with the biodefense thing, Pfizer is like the third-largest defense contractor. The biotech pharmaceutical industry saw that they could wedge their way in and get a chunk of that fat DoD pipeline.”

The first emergency use authorization for the COVID-19 vaccines was announced on Dec. 11, 2020, for the “Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine,” and within days, key military installations were vaccinating soldiers on a voluntary basis. In a sign of things to come, a messaging campaign was launched to motivate soldiers to get vaccinated. The Twitter account of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, for example, retweeted a Dec. 16 CDC posting which said, “Side effects after getting a #COVID19 vaccine are normal signs your body is building protection. Side effects may even feel like flu and might affect your ability to do daily activities, but they should go away in a few days.” The tweet encouraged its members to check the CDC website for information. A few days later, on Dec. 19, the same account posted a photo of one of its commanders getting his shot, “demonstrating confidence in the scientists and medical professionals supporting #OperationWarpSpeed.”

Soldiers from units across the Army told Tablet that much more pressure was being applied behind the scenes. Others, however, said that prior to the official mandate, in the words of one soldier, they “never heard another word about” the vaccines. While there is evidence that a culture of bullying and coercion had taken root pre-mandate, this largely depended upon where one was stationed, or even varied unit to unit on a single base. For soldiers in units that made the COVID-19 shot their highest priority, it became virtually impossible to refuse without sacrificing one’s career. And that includes America’s elite special operations units. According to former Green Beret John Frankman: “Most people got it before it was mandatory because of the pressure put on us.”

Long before the latest pandemic, a review of a soldier’s vaccination history was a standard part of the military’s checklist required for deployment. In the case of COVID-19, however, the difference was the relative lack of risk to young and healthy soldiers, and the new nature of the vaccines. Tablet learned of one special operations unit whose scheduled deployment to train with a foreign military was canceled due to members of the team not being vaccinated—and this was before the military had even imposed a mandate and in spite of the fact that the country they were planning to train in did not require guests to be vaccinated at that time. Responding to questions from Tablet, the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs for the Army said that there was no official policy for this during the pre-mandate period. Such decisions struck a blow that was “especially difficult” in the military’s most highly trained and elite units, where, as one former member told Tablet, soldiers “live to deploy.”

Meanwhile, unvaccinated soldiers were being treated differently than their vaccinated peers. The vaccinated were allowed to travel freely, and granted unlimited use of gym facilities while the unvaccinated were often denied. In July 2021, leadership at Fort Knox issued more than two dozen “career-killing” GOMOR’s (General Officer Memoranda of Reprimand) to unvaccinated soldiers attempting to enter buildings on base without masks. Vaccinated soldiers were not required to mask for entry. Some installations also awarded extra days off for entire units based on the percentage of soldiers who were vaccinated, creating tension within the ranks.

One former petty officer in the Coast Guard, Andrew Larsen, told Tablet that in March and April 2021, he was not allowed to leave his base to visit family, even though they were within “the allowable ‘out of bounds’ limits of the training center.” Larsen says that he was told by officers on multiple occasions that his refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine could potentially affect his “ability to be retained,” meaning that he could be pushed out of the service for not getting the shot. Larsen also relayed a story to Tablet about the differing treatment of the vaccinated and unvaccinated onboard his ship, the Harriet Lane. In July 2021, while out at sea, Larsen says that a recently vaccinated shipmate came down with COVID-19. The unvaccinated were placed in a separate berthing for three days, with “five minutes of prison yard time” a day for meals on the deck, in spite of the fact that none of the unvaccinated crew members had tested positive for COVID-19. The vaccinated, adds Larsen, were not tested at all.

On March 8, 2021, the official podcast of the 18th Airborne Corps released an episode titled “The COVID Vaccine Information War,” in which multiple soldiers were featured who had initially resisted the shots before coming around, which was framed as good behavior, while the conversation framed skeptics as fools who needed to trust their betters.

Aside from its patronizing tone, there was a more serious problem with the podcast: It presented information that was either false or so premature as to be unreliable. For example, the podcast’s guests, medical professionals inside the military, stated that mass vaccination would contribute to “herd immunity.” That claim was widely repeated during the rollout of the vaccines and used to argue that individuals had a moral obligation to get the shot for the good of their fellow citizens—or in this case their fellow soldiers.

That claim, however, was untrue—a fact that had already been known months before the 18th Airborne Corps released its podcast. “Pfizer has presented no evidence in its data today that the vaccine has any effect on virus carriage or shedding, which is the fundamental basis for herd immunity,” Food and Drug Administration adviser Dr. Patrick Moore had stated in December 2020, following the authorization of the mRNA COVID vaccines. In a later episode of the 18th Airborne Corps’ podcast, from July 20, 2021, the same guests predicted that the delta variant would primarily affect the unvaccinated population and reiterated that there had been “no safety concerns” from the accelerated trials. One doctor, Sammy Choi, chief of research at Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Medical Center, said his pitch to troops was, “Would you do it for humanity?”

Despite differing on other details, all of the military service members who spoke with Tablet agreed that once the Aug. 24, 2021, memo came down from Secretary Austin making the mandate official, the Army went full bore getting the holdouts vaccinated with a rhetoric of divisiveness. One of the paratroopers we interviewed heard a commander tell one of his holdouts, upon getting vaccinated, “Wow. You finally did it. Welcome to the team.” Another said he witnessed a private getting excoriated by a sergeant major right after the mandate was announced, telling him “what a piece of crap he was” and that he was “a disgrace to the unit.” Jake, a former Coast Guard aviator, told Tablet that when he raised objections with a superior, he was told, “Your research is wrong. The vaccine is fine. Get it.” Or as Saran told Tablet: “It was going to be vaccine über alles, and rules be damned.”

The military insists, even now, that the COVID-19 vaccine mandates were a “lawful” order. But there are significant legal questions that have been raised about whether that is true. Several lawsuits have been filed by current and former soldiers against the mandates and the ongoing threat of punitive actions by the DoD against those who refused to receive them.

One of those lawsuits, Wilson v. Austin (co-litigated by Saran), outlines many of the key arguments against the legality of the mandates. The primary argument of the suit cites DoD precedent established in 2008, reaffirming the 1997 rule for “investigational” drugs—that these can only be mandated in an emergency “if the President determines, in writing, that providing to members of the armed forces an option to refuse is not in the interests of national security.” In the case of the 2021 mandates, those determinations were issued by the secretary of defense, not the president. The complaint goes on to demonstrate that even after the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine—two days before the DoD announced its mandate—the actual vials administered by the military to its soldiers continued to be of the unapproved emergency use version until at least June 2022.

The military says that the statute doesn’t apply in this case, as the EUA “Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine” is “interchangeable” with the FDA-approved Pfizer-BioNTech “Comirnaty” vaccine, according to the FDA. But neither Pfizer nor Moderna ever applied for “interchangeability” status with the FDA for those products, as is normally required for such a designation. And, in its Aug. 23, 2021, reauthorization of the EUA Pfizer product, the FDA itself acknowledged that the products were “legally distinct,” though they did insist that this wouldn’t impact “safety or effectiveness.” In addition, the plaintiffs note that the official authorization of the Pfizer “Comirnaty” vaccine, issued Aug. 23, 2021, “lists the ‘start’ and ‘end’ marketing dates as ‘8/23/2021’—in other words, it was removed from the market on the same day it received FDA approval.” The same sleight of hand was performed for Moderna’s “Spikevax,” the brand name for the FDA-approved version of its vaccine.

Some soldiers were willing to get vaccinated if they could take the FDA approved product, like Staff Sergeant Steven Brown, a crypto linguist in the Army. In a declaration submitted to the court, Brown states that the DoD “deceive[d]” and “coerce[d]” soldiers to take the EUA product by misrepresenting it as the fully authorized Comirnaty in “Fact Sheets,” which were distributed to members of the military. (Peter Marks, the FDA’s head of biologics evaluation, has said that the FDA used “enforcement discretion” to waive the requirement for providers to share the normal EUA consent notification.) Brown states that on Sept. 27, 2021, he told his military primary care provider he was willing to get the FDA approved vaccine, but was told it was not being provided. A General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand was placed on his permanent record and Brown was slated for involuntary separation—that is, firing—on July 1, 2022. Ultimately, Brown was not “separated” directly like many of his colleagues; the military “flagged” him, preventing reenlistment when his contract was up. According to Saran, “His career was killed because of his refusal to take the shot. Unquestionably.”

While the loss of any dedicated soldier can be a blow, pushing Brown out was especially costly, since it wasted the significant investment that goes into recruiting and training the highly specialized crypto linguists, whose initial Army schooling alone can take almost two years. Green Beret Frankman told Tablet that he heard the concerns expressed by Brown from members of his own unit. “Guys were worried it wasn’t FDA approved, that’s why they didn’t get it … they wanted to be ordered to take the shot so they could hold someone accountable if they got screwed up.”

According to Saran, the former Marine JAG and one of the co-litigators on the suit against the Army, the single most important legal argument against the mandates is the fact that, according to the DoD’s own definition of a vaccine, the mRNA products aren’t vaccines at all.

According to DoD statute 6205.02, a vaccine is defined as, “A preparation that [1] contains one or more components of a biological agent or toxin and [2] induces a protective immune response against that agent when administered to an individual.” Since the mRNA shots contain instructions for the body to produce spike protein but do not actually “contain” any of the virus (including the spike) at all, Saran and his co-litigators argue that “the mRNA shots are not ‘vaccines’ under DODI 6205.02.”

Many of the plaintiffs in Wilson v. Austin, and the soldiers we spoke to, filed religious accommodation requests, in the hopes of getting an approved exception to the requirements. That, too, proved an uphill battle, with a pattern of mockery and denial. By Dec. 15, 2022, the Army had received 4,437 religious accommodation requests from active troops and had approved 119. They denied 1,797 and left in limbo the remaining 2,521. In Coker v. Austin, an affidavit submitted in another case against the military mandates, 18-year enlisted man Dixon Brown says that his senior enlisted leader told him, “The Bible doesn’t tell you not to get vaccinated.” Many others faced suspicion that their religious beliefs weren’t sincere, but as just one example of sincerity, Frankman told Tablet that in making his choice he had to consider that, “You’re not just living for this world, you have to be, you’re held accountable for what you do later on, when you stand before God. And it helps give you that moral understanding that ends don’t justify means.”

While those religious sentiments may have been fairly common within the ranks, military leadership preached a different gospel. Most chaplains encouraged vaccination, and a look at the case of the Navy SEALs v. Biden reveals that, according to an investigation of the Navy’s procedures for evaluating religious accommodation requests, there was a “disapproval template” form but not one to process approvals. Saran provided Tablet with examples from across the military of rote responses to religious accommodation requests that belie the predetermined approach taken. As several of the Navy SEALs testified, superiors told them that “all religious accommodation requests will be denied” and that command “has no patience or tolerance for service members who refuse COVID-19 vaccination” and wants them “out of the SEAL community.” One SEAL reported that his command master chief told him that the lawyers were using language like, “when they get denied”—not if.

As of Dec. 15, 2022, the Army had received 783 requests for medical exemptions from active personnel and approved only 31. In two examples from other services detailed in Wilson V. Austin, even seemingly valid medical exemptions were not granted. Air National Guard F-16 pilot Joshua Wilson, after 19 years of experience and two tours in Iraq, “submitted a medical exemption request … because he has a documented allergy to the contents of the shots, a prior asymptomatic infection for COVID-19 with documented antibodies, and potential for clotting due to vein anatomy and a prior surgery. Two different medical doctors have recommended Major Wilson not get an mRNA shot. Notwithstanding all of this, he has been told he will likely be separated for declining.” A former Naval combat helicopter pilot and current member of the Naval Reserve, Lieutenant Commander Michael Groothousen, is a cancer survivor with a medical history including Bell’s palsy, migraines, and high blood pressure. He submitted a medical exemption for the vaccines but was later told his request “had never been submitted” and was then ordered to be vaccinated by a Navy doctor he had never met. One year prior to this order, Groothousen had a confirmed case of COVID-19.

On the whole, the impression given from the lawsuits and multiple accounts provided by members of the military is of a purge that used the vaccine mandate as an excuse to cull the force. The apparatus through which these force reductions are carried out is the military’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps in its legal branch, known as the JAG Corps. According to the anonymous ex-JAG officer who spoke with Tablet—and who repeatedly clarified that he’s neither “conservative” nor an “anti-vaxxer”—whenever the DoD wants to reduce force size in a subtle way, they utilize the JAG Corps, the Army’s legal-administrative branch, “and that’s precisely what happened in the context of the vaccine.” At this point, he added, the lawyers are running the whole show, including combat decisions, and commanders are so scared of them, they just get in line. “That increasingly hyperliberal JAG Corps now has full sway over the policies of the DoD,” he went on. “So when the DoD wants to vaccinate everyone, the people that are carrying it out are the attorneys.” The JAG influence over command decisions led this former officer to decide to leave the service even before the vaccine mandates were announced.

Saran agrees with the view that the military’s lawyers have become increasingly powerful. “They wanted to make use of lawyers and what they got was a politicized military out of it.” And, he says, that top-down, micromanagement legalese approach has created a calloused machine, capable of enforcing orders without any “sense of higher level obligations … It’s really a will-to-power kind of thing.”

This bleak picture of military culture was echoed by nearly every person who spoke to Tablet. Many of them saw the vaccine push as part of a larger ideological reshaping of the force in which Washington and its administrators in the JAG Corps passed policies disproportionately targeting one group in particular: white, Christian, conservatives.

The flip side of the military’s embrace of DEI ideology, is the targeting of holdouts who are presumed to run afoul of the “inclusion” agenda. In February 2021, some six months before the vaccine mandate went into effect, Secretary Austin ordered a militarywide “stand down” to address the “challenge of extremism in the ranks.” The following April, the Pentagon announced a new “Countering Extremism Working Group” to deal with extremism. Describing the anti-extremism training implemented by the Department of Defense, one soldier said, “It’s all about right-wing extremism. And definitely a climate was developing of, ‘If you’re a conservative, you need to watch it.’” The problem is that there is no evidence of an extremism problem in the military. In June 2021, just a few months after the working group was established, a study jointly conducted by the U.S. Military Academy and a tech company called Moonshot, found that “active duty troops are less prone than the American public as a whole to seek out information about violent extremism.” Another study, published only a few months ago by the RAND Corporation found “no evidence to support the notion that the veteran community, as a whole, manifests higher rates of support for violent extremist groups or extremist beliefs than the American public.”

“There’s been an agenda at play that does seem to be pushing a focus on things that don’t matter in what should be a militarily focused organization, such as paying for the surgeries of transgender members,” said Larsen. “At the same time [that the military] is restricting, isolating, saying ‘you’re undeployable’ [to unvaccinated soldiers] because you’re medically unsafe, because you’re not receiving an experimental gene therapy that hasn’t even been fully tested … that same organization is saying they will pay for you to receive this surgery and be stuck on these hormonal therapies that do literally limit your ability to be in isolated situations in many ways,” he said, referring to an Army policy issued in June 2021, a few months before the vaccine mandate, that the service would pay for transgender soldiers to receive hormone therapy, mental health care, and surgeries, where deemed necessary. “The fact that those two things occurred at the same time … to me is just evidence of an agenda at play.”

Contrary to what the Beltway image of “anti-vaxxers” might be, the service members who spoke with Tablet for this article were articulate and thoughtful and well read. One young soldier said he believes the current situation, in terms of hubris and lack of readiness, is reminiscent of the French army of the 1930s. “To put it bluntly, we’re screwed.” The legalistic doublespeak and ideological purging, meanwhile, brought to mind the Soviets. “They can’t really put people in gulags now so they just take their career away.”

Aside from whatever political agenda animates the Biden administration’s DoD, the vaccine campaign also raised vital health and military readiness questions that still need to be answered. As Naval officer Olivia Degenkolb pointed out on the DarkHorse podcast in October of last year, on Aug. 21, 2021, just before the military introduced its mandate, the total number of COVID-19 deaths among the United States’ 2.4 million armed services personnel was 28. By Dec. 8, 2022, that number had grown to 96. But whether the vaccines could be causing more harm than good to some of America’s youngest and healthiest citizens remains an open question that is all but barred from being asked.

Much was made about the leaked DMED data presented at Sen. Ron Johnson’s first COVID-19 roundtable in January 2022, suggesting that a variety of severe medical conditions had seen year-over-year increases of hundreds or even thousands of percent. Johnson sent off a letter to DoD asking for clarification on the data, only to have them respond that the data from the previous five years (2016-20) had been corrupted and made 2021 look extreme by comparison. Upon updating and correcting the historical data, the DoD claimed, some of the 2021 numbers looked like decreases. But a whistleblower approached Johnson’s office this March with a new read of the corrected data, which still showed significant increases in 2021 in cases of myocarditis, pulmonary embolism, and complications of heart disease, among other conditions. Johnson followed up again with a letter to Secretary of Defense Austin, asking, “Does DoD agree with the percent changes provided by a DoD whistleblower (indicated above)? If not, why not? ... What steps has DoD taken or will DoD take to investigate whether the increases in certain registered medical diagnoses, including those above, are associated with COVID-19 vaccine adverse events?” Tablet reached out directly to the DoD, which never provided us a response. However, on July 5th, Under Secretary of Defense Gilbert Cisneros did reply to Senator Johnson’s office in a letter acknowledging that in fact the whistleblowers’ claims were “similar” to their own findings upon re-analysis, but attributed the dramatic increases in myocarditis, hypertensive diseases, and pulmonary embolism among members of the force to COVID infection, rather than vaccination. 

As far as the troops we interviewed, none had horror stories of vaccine injury to report. On the other hand, said one, the culture of military life is such that many guys won’t go to the doctor for anything. “There’s a brick wall. Don’t walk around it, just keep smashing your head against it until it crumbles.” But as far as how the vaccine has affected readiness, that same soldier told Tablet, “Vaccinated soldiers get COVID routinely. One sergeant has had COVID like five times, but he’s vaccinated and boosted, and each time he gets COVID, it’s just as bad, if not worse.” Another said, “Dudes that got vaccinated had like the highest infection rates for COVID. I’ve never had COVID. Almost everyone in my company had COVID.” That the vaccinated are more likely to catch COVID-19 than the unvaccinated has now been borne out in multiple peer-reviewed studies, including one recently published by researchers at the Cleveland Clinic.

Soldiers also agreed that nothing is likely to change under the military’s current leadership. Asked if there was any message he’d like to send to the Army’s top brass, one infantryman replied, “I honestly don’t think they would care. They’ve been hearing this nonstop from multiple different sources for years now. They don’t care … I’m not saying this out of bitterness or anger. That’s just the way it is.”

Meanwhile, despite the mandate being over, the DoD will “continue to review cases of currently serving service members who [remain unvaccinated and] did not request an exemption or accommodation on an individual basis to determine appropriate action.”

In other words, despite all the evidence casting doubt on U.S. military leadership’s own actions during the pandemic, the brass still has more punishments to mete out.

This article has been updated to reflect that the Department of Defense did reply this July to Senator Johnson’s office in a letter that corroborated concern over increased reports of serious medical conditions among servicemembers during 2021, however attributing these to prior COVID infection, rather than vaccination.

Clayton Fox writes Tablet’s daily newsletter, The Scroll, alongside Sean Cooper and Jacob Siegel. He has written independently for Tablet, Real Clear Investigations, Brownstone Institute, American Theatre magazine, Los Angeles Magazine and The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @clayfoxwriter

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