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Shots and Being Fired

When it comes to orders from commanders, the case for military restraint is just as relevant as elsewhere.

That the story of hundreds of Navy SEALs requesting a religious exemption from the military vaccine mandate has remained below the fold, if not completely absent from the biggest newspapers in the country is not surprising. What is surprising, however, is the number of religious objectors appealing the requirement who have been told by their commanding officers that the appeal will likely be denied—contrary to the Pentagon’s initial announcement.

Of the approximately 2,500 active duty Navy SEALs, each of whom cost Americans at least $500,000 to train, several hundred have sought an exemption from the Covid-19 vaccine mandate in the military—as many as a quarter of all active duty SEALs, according to R. Davis Younts, a JAG lawyer who is representing several of the special operators in his private capacity. JustTheNews reported that the SEALs—most of whom are shooters, not in senior leadership—have been told that, if they seek a religious accommodation, they will no longer be able to serve as active duty soldiers. In other words, their requests will almost certainly be denied.

Following the FDA’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine at the end of August, the Pentagon announced the vaccine would be mandatory for all service members, with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recommending the various branches impose “ambitious timelines for implementation.” At the time of the original announcement, the Pentagon said service members with religious objections, or with a preexisting condition and advice from a doctor not to receive the vaccine, would be exempt from the mandate.

Instead, religious objectors are now being forced to choose between career and conviction, because this mild disease supersedes everything, apparently. For context, the entire U.S. military has reported a total of 34 deaths with Covid-19 since March 2020, for a 0.01 percent death rate.

Half-truths and this particular vaccine aside, all of this raises an important question about the limits of commanders’ power over a soldier’s body. Does a soldier surrender everything to the state when he commits to pull the trigger for the rest of us, becoming subject to every new drug the FDA approves, or is there some point at which he can say “enough,” without ending his career? The Christian soldier, whose body is not his own, has been told, in effect, that it is the state’s, as a condition of his service. But Romans 13 is followed by Romans 14, regarding proper governance of the body: “Whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”

Ironically, the higher levels of command in the military did not anticipate any serious pushback from lower-level service members, according to the Times. If they understood the demographics of their troops, they should have. In terms of accessions, or soldiers who have passed all necessary physical fitness tests and sworn their oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, the average soldier disproportionately comes from the middle class, and as certain prominent books have highlighted in the last five years, the South contributes more to the military, relative to its population, than any other region. In contrast with their leaders, the boots on the ground are, broadly speaking, generally conservative. The majority—69 percent—identify as members of the Christian faith specifically. Blame it or praise it, rebels and religious types abound.

Compounding this is a zealotry that was avoidable, as one doctor pointed out on Twitter recently; by mandating the vaccine, our managerial elites created zealots out of both sides: “Coercion & disdain breeds distrust and resistance.” Rather than continuing to leave Americans to choose the shot when they feel comfortable doing so, forcing hands turned the cautious into the suspicious and the upset real quick. As a result, it’s not just your Facebook relatives who have concerns about the Covid-19 vaccines anymore; it’s anyone who didn’t already have the shot and a few more who did.

For its own part, the military’s mandate was politicized from the beginning. The New York Times wrote at the time of its announcement that mandating the shot for troops could serve a dual purpose of inoculating troops and slowing the spread of the virus “in areas where hesitancy has been strong”—they sure as heck weren’t referring to Vermont.

A soldier is, and generally should be, expected to obey, for the same reason a nation should endure “a long train of abuses and usurpations” before rebelling. Military success certainly requires order, which requires appropriate obedience to power—we know this. By the same token, however, we are foolish to assume there aren’t limits to a commander’s power over his soldiers, just as there are limits to the power a government holds over its citizens. Where that line falls may be hazy, but leaving no recourse for those soldiers who hesitate to take a new vaccine for a disease that is statistically insignificant for them seems to land on the wrong side of it. In terms of seriousness, too, a conscientious exemption from a novel medication should surely be considered above a request to wear a beard on religious grounds, of which cases have cleared in the past.

For soldiers who decline the vaccine, however, the path forward is unpromising to say the least. The military has 30 days to respond to each religious appeal; if they choose to deny it, as the SEALs have been told is likely, the soldier then has another 10 days to appeal that decision or get the vaccine. At this point, most troops who appeal again would be subject to discipline of some sort: pilots barred from flying, soldiers blocked from deploying, et cetera. After the second appeal is denied, if he still declines the vaccine, this can constitute refusal to obey a lawful order, and the soldier can be dishonorably discharged—an indictment that follows a soldier into countless aspects of civilian life, from revoking the benefits he receives as a veteran to preventing him from owning a firearm. Alternatively, a soldier who refuses could receive an other than honorable discharge, which is less severe than a dishonorable but can still present obstacles for veterans after service.

Congressman Mark Green, a Republican from Tennessee, has sought to ensure soldiers who were discharged for refusing the vaccine would get an honorable discharge. A member of the House Armed Services Committee, Green garnered the support of every Democrat on the committee to include Section 716 of the NDAA, which remains in the final text of the bill as passed by the House on September 23, and which prohibits the Department of Defense from discharging service members with anything less than an honorable designation based solely on their Covid-19 vaccination status. But the Biden administration has already come out against the amendment, claiming it inhibits commanders from enforcing a lawful order.

A former Army flight surgeon, Green tells me denying soldiers honorable discharges based on their Covid vaccination status is too far.

“I understand why commanders want to mandate vaccines, but in this case this is a novel mechanism for a vaccine and we have no longitudinal data,” Green said. “Most of those mandated vaccines have decades of data. Allowing members of the military to say, look, I just want to wait on more data, and then to be kicked out of the military with an other than honorable discharge—I mean, these are people who are willing to give their lives for our freedom. To screw them like this over this vaccine is just absurd.”

Even with an honorable discharge, however, a soldier still faces a tough choice, and one that could have been avoided if the executive branch and the military industrial complex had more deference to opinions other than their own. But perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything less from the group that, for decades, has deployed the middle class to fight and fund its hobby wars.

about the author

Carmel Richardson is the 2021-2022 editorial fellow at The American Conservative. She received her B.A. from Hillsdale College in political philosophy with a minor in journalism. She firmly believes that the backroads are better than the interstate, and though she currently resides in Northern Virginia, her home state will always be Tennessee.

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