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Army scrambles to find new recruits at the same time it boots vaccine refusers

Washington Examiner: James McIntyre

When the Army announced last month it would be temporarily reducing the size of its force over the next two years by 12,000 soldiers, from 485,000 down to 473,000, it blamed the difficulty of recruiting in a red-hot job market coupled with the inability to reach high school seniors isolated by COVID-19 restrictions.

“Like every other employer in the economy, we're facing, obviously, some challenging conditions in terms of our ability to recruit and attract talent,” said Army Undersecretary Gabe Camarillo at a Pentagon briefing last month. “We’re all in a war for talent every single year, and what we're just seeing is given the particular conditions of a very tight labor market.”

At the same time, the Army is having significant trouble filling its ranks. The service has discharged 255 soldiers for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine and is on track to give another 2,500 to 3,000 the boot before the end of the year, a number roughly equivalent to two or three Army battalions.

As of mid-April, six Army officers, including two battalion commanders, have been relieved of command, while 3,330 active-duty soldiers have been issued written reprimands for refusing lawful orders to get their COVID-19 shots.

Meanwhile, the Navy, Marines, and Air Force have all met their recruiting goals but are also jettisoning unvaccinated personnel; so far, 804 sailors, 1,787 Marines, and 261 airmen.

All while the CDC is reporting the U.S. average of COVID-19 cases has dropped to about 35,000 a day, or 0.01% of the U.S. population, prompting Republican lawmakers to question why the Pentagon is so insistent that every last troop has to get the shot or get out.

“With COVID cases at all-time lows, why are we still enforcing the COVID vaccine mandate on our military personnel?” Indiana Republican Rep. Jim Banks asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a budget hearing earlier this month.

“We've seen variants of this virus wane and then grow again,” replied Austin. “So, this is a medical readiness requirement, and it will remain so.”

Banks pressed on.

“During a moment of increased action from Russia to China, is it worth it? Is it worth sacrificing our end-strength for vaccine mandates?” he asked Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Would you rather have a few extra battalions of unvaccinated soldiers or not have them at all because of this?”

“I think getting vaccinated is part of the readiness issue of the health of the force,” replied Milley, and he pointed to anthrax, an often fatal disease almost nonexistent in the general population but that can be weaponized as a bio-agent and pose a threat to troops on the battlefield.

“You're a veteran yourself. We get a lot of vaccinations,” Milley said. “Anthrax is very, very low out there, and we still get anthrax vaccinations.”

The Pentagon has consistently downplayed the impact of the forced departure of several thousand troops, including experienced commanders, arguing the number is negligible compared to the normal attrition of service members who decide to muster out each year.

“It's tiny, the numbers that are actually being asked to process out, so I think it's manageable,” said Milley. “If 2,000 are kicked out, I think that wouldn't hurt.”

Milley and others point to another significant headwind recruiters face: that of the 34 million in the prime target 17 to 24 age group, 71% are ineligible to serve for various reasons, either because they are physically unfit, mentally unqualified, or have criminal records.

“I think the largest headwind is inescapably the reaction that DOD took to COVID,” argued Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana. He pointed out during the hearing that recruiting challenges such as low unemployment and the shrinking pool of eligible recruits have been factors since well before the pandemic. “So, what's changed over the last 24 months? It's the department's COVID vaccine mandate. And there's just no way around it.”

Johnson cited another CDC statistic, the fact that roughly 40% of young adults 18 to 24 are taking a pass on getting fully vaccinated.

“Off the bat, that's 40% of the target demographic that's immediately ineligible to serve. I mean, this is just a fact,” said Johnson.

And according to the CDC, the numbers in southeastern states are even higher, with more than 50% of 18- to 24-year-old men eschewing the vaccine.

“That's Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas — fertile ground for DOD recruiters. These states send their sons and daughters to serve the nation at drastically higher rates than other states do,” said Johnson.

“It's pretty plain, if we look at this, that DOD is having a recruiting and retention crisis because it has disqualified over half of the male population from serving in the military in its best-recruiting grounds, and nearly 40% of men and women aged 18 to 24 nationwide.”

One particularly controversial part of the Pentagon vaccine mandate is the widespread refusal by commanders to grant religious exemptions in all but a tiny fraction of cases.

For example, in the active-duty Army, while there have been 4,238 requests for exemptions on religious grounds, only two have been granted.

The Air Force has approved 42 requests but denied 5,129, while the Navy has approved 27 of 3,352, but only in the cases of sailors who were already planning to leave the service.

The discharge of unvaccinated service members who have pending religious exemption requests has been put on hold while the issue works its way through the courts.

In a case involving 35 Navy SEALs who refused the COVID-19 vaccine citing sincerely held religious beliefs, a federal judge in Texas barred the Navy from disciplining or discharging the elite commandos and called the Navy’s review of religious exceptions “by all accounts … theater.”

“The Navy has not granted a religious exemption to any vaccine in recent memory. It merely rubber stamps each denial,” Judge Reed O’Connor wrote in his January order.

O’Connor listed opposition to the use of aborted fetal cell lines in the development of the vaccine as one of several legitimate objections.

“Plaintiffs’ beliefs about the vaccine are undisputedly sincere,” he wrote.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed the SEALs couldn’t be discharged for now but blocked O’Connor’s order barring the Navy from changing deployment orders or assignments based on vaccination status.

“The President of the United States, not any federal judge, is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces,” wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh in support of the ruling, which concluded O’Connor improperly inserted himself into the military chain of command.

Meanwhile, the Navy is locked in another legal battle in Florida, where the commander of a guided-missile destroyer has been assigned shore duty because the Navy won’t send unvaccinated sailors to sea.

His attorneys are arguing the Navy’s action is punitive and therefore violates a court-ordered ban on retaliation against unvaccinated personnel, while the Navy says that without the ability to replace the commander, the unnamed ship is undeployable.

At the April 5 House Armed Services Committee hearing, Johnson had one last question for the defense secretary. “In light of the obvious impact on recruitment and retention, does the department have any plans to repeal or modify the current COVID vaccine requirement?”

“I do not,” was Austin’s terse reply.