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Opinion: Mandating vaccines for the military would send a powerful message

Patients who have contracted the Delta variant of the coronavirus are filling up intensive care units in states such as Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Mississippi — and beyond.
It’s heartening to hear that President Joe Biden will reportedly announce on Thursday that federal employees and contractors will need to be vaccinated or be frequently tested for the virus if they refuse. Biden should issue a similar order to US military personnel, who are not classified as federal employees, but play a critical role in ensuring the nation’s safety and security.
The military can also be an important role model for those Americans who are hesitant about vaccination. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, 69% of Americans have a significant amount of confidence in the US military — far higher than any other US institution, including the White House or Congress.
Yet, as of the start of this month, only 58% of US Marines had been vaccinated. Other services fare better — the Army is 70% vaccinated, while the Navy is at 77%. But these are the men and women who are sworn to protect our nation, and a sizable minority are still refusing the most basic protection they can offer, which is to prevent the spread of the most lethal virus in a century.
While Covid vaccines remain under the US Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization, somewhat limiting the ability of authorities to compel mandatory vaccinations, the world is in the middle of the greatest public health emergency in our lifetimes and full FDA approval is expected as early as this fall.
Taken together, those may be strong enough reasons for Biden to push the legal limits here and order more than 2 million active duty service personnel and reservists to be vaccinated.
As commander in chief, Biden has great authority over the US military. Unlike other federal workers, US servicemen and women swear an oath that they will obey the orders of their commander in chief, which gives the President considerable leeway to issue vaccination orders. And just think about this: If the President can order military operations where troops may die, he surely can order them to take safe and effective vaccines to protect both themselves and their fellow citizens.
After all, much of the military works in close quarters with each other, and they are routinely ordered to take relevant vaccinations if they deploy overseas. For instance, US service personnel who are deployed in the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations in the greater Middle East are required to have vaccinations against anthrax, chickenpox, hepatitis and typhoid. Why shouldn’t they be ordered to get vaccinated during a global pandemic when they are at home?
The reason polio no longer paralyzes many thousands of Americans a year is that polio vaccinations became widespread in the United State in 1955 — and the disease was eliminated in the US by the late 1970s. Today, polio lingers on in places such as rural areas of Afghanistan dominated by the Taliban who have banned inoculations. Do vaccine hesitant Americans want to end up on the same side of history as the Taliban?

Bottom line: Compelling vaccinations in the military is not about taking away their rights, but about their obligations to themselves and to others trying to avoid hospitalization or death from a deadly disease.

Around the world, people are begging to be vaccinated, yet in the US, where we have plenty of vaccines, we do not have enough Americans who are willing to take them. Those who are not getting vaccinated are, in effect, free riding off of those who have been vaccinated, since the larger the pool of vaccinated people, the less chance there is for the virus to proliferate.

That free ride must end, and it should begin with the US servicemen and women who are sworn to protect their nation.

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