Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin circulated a memo Wednesday informing military commanders that they would need to “impose ambitious timelines for implementation” of the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
“To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force,” Austin wrote in the memo first obtained by The Associated Press. “After careful consultation with medical experts and military leadership, and with the support of the President, I have determined that mandatory vaccination against coronavirus disease … is necessary to protect the Force and defend the American people.”
In the memo, Austin said that he wanted the vaccination process to begin “immediately” for all unvaccinated service members under the jurisdiction of the Pentagon including those on active duty or reserve and the national guard.
The AP reported that about 800,000 service members have not yet been vaccinated.
Importantly, the memo also notes that mandatory vaccination “will be subject to any identified contraindications and any administrative or other exemptions established in Military Department policy.” This means that service members can still apply for religious or medical exemptions.
“There is a religious exemption possibility for any mandatory vaccine, and there’s a process that we go through to counsel the individual both from a medical and from a command perspective about using a religious exemption,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said on August 10.
Now that the Food and Drug Administration has approved the Pfizer vaccine for Americans 16 and older, Pentagon officials expect to speed up vaccination efforts. According to The Hill, Kirby said on Monday that a timeline for the vaccine mandate among the troops would be coming soon.
Kirby has also said “there could be administrative and disciplinary repercussions” if service members do not get the vaccine.
AP notes that Austin’s memo “does not dictate a specific timeline for completing the vaccinations. But it says the military services will have to report regularly on their progress. A senior defense official said that Austin has made it clear to the services that he expects them to move quickly and that this will be completed in weeks not months.”
Austin said that he expected “regular reporting” from his commanders and other military officials on the status of the vaccinations. He concluded by praising the efficacy of the vaccine. “Our vaccination of the Force will save lives. Thank you for your focus on this critical mission,” he said.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden endorsed the Pentagon’s plan to mandate vaccines.
“Secretary Austin and I share an unshakable commitment to making sure our troops have every tool they need to do their jobs as safely as possible,” he said in a statement. “Being vaccinated will enable our service members to stay healthy, to better protect their families, and to ensure that our force is ready to operate anywhere in the world.”
But not all have welcomed the mandate.
Representative Mark Green (R-TN), a physician and combat veteran, said earlier this month that wearing “our country’s uniform does not mean our service members sign away the right to make personal medical decisions.
“An individual’s health care decisions should never be mandated by the Federal government,” he wrote in a statement.
The mandate does not apply to the Johnson and Johnson vaccine or the Moderna vaccine. Both of those vaccines are currently available through emergency use authorizations and have not been formally approved by the FDA.