The highest leaders of America’s armed forces, from the commander in chief to the chairman of the joint chiefs, are preparing to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for the military.

In a “Message to the Force” memorandum the Defense Department published Monday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III said he would ask President Joe Biden to approve an order that makes the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for military service members.

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The defense secretary, who had served in the U.S. Army for 41 years, said he had consulted with seniors military leader and health care professionals before making the decision. He added that the vaccine mandate would begin in by mid-September or as soon as the Food and Drug Administration formally approves a vaccine, whichever comes first.

  • “To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force. I strongly encourage all DoD military and civilian personnel — as well as contractor personnel — to get vaccinated now and for military Service members to not wait for the mandate,” Austin wrote on Twitter.

Biden said he agreed with the defense secretary’s decision.

  • “I strongly support Secretary Austin’s message to the Force today on the Department of Defense’s plan to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for our service members not later than mid-September,” Biden said in White House statement Monday.
  • The president added that America is still on “wartime footing” in the fight against the pandemic and “every American who is eligible should take immediate steps to get vaccinated right away.” 
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Why haven’t service members been required to get the shot already?

The military already requires soldiers, Marines, sailors and other service members to roll up their uniform sleeves periodically throughout their careers for a variety of vaccines. Those shots are given to protect unit and service members’ readiness, as bacterias and viruses can spread quickly between service members that are often required to live and work in cramped and austere conditions

But the Defense Department has been hesitate for months to extend that requirement to the COVID-19 vaccines — regardless of the success of the vaccines to stem the pandemic — because the shots have not yet reached full FDA approval.

In late July, The New York Times reported that around 64% of all active-duty service members had been vaccinated against the coronavirus, slightly higher than the 60% of U.S. adults that had been fully vaccinated at that time.

What do veterans say about vaccine mandates?

In his own memorandum to all military branches on Monday, Joint Chief Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milly — who’s spent 40 years the Army, to include time in Special Forces — said vaccine mandates in the military was nothing new.

  • “Since the first day of basic training and throughout our service, we’ve received multiple vaccines,” Milley wrote. “We have proven processes with trusted and skilled medical professionals.”

Like Milley pointed out, ordering soldiers to get a vaccine shouldn’t be anything surprising to service members, said Paul Rieckoff, a U.S. Army veteran and founder of the veterans advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

  • “Again, vaccines in the military are not new. The Army already requires new soldiers to get measles, mumps, diphtheria, flubicillin, rubella and smallpox: ... COVID will now be added to that list. And it shouldn’t have taken this long,” Rieckoff wrote on Twitter after the pending mandate was announced.
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Congressman and U.S. Marine Corp veteran Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said on Twitter that to complete its mission, the military has historically told members when to get shots and to wear masks.

  • “This is literally preparing them for the military to fight for freedom,” Iraq veteran added.

Vaccines save lives,” tweeted Votes Vets — a progressive, military-centric political action committee — after the news Monday.

  • “This is about readiness, and we support the Pentagon doing all it can to ensure our fighting force remains strong and at the ready,” Vote Vets added in separate tweet.

But not all military veterans support vaccine mandates

Rep. Ronny Jackson, a freshman Republican congressman from Texas and retired U.S. Navy doctor, said on Twitter this weekend that he was against vaccine mandates generally.

  • “Say NO to vaccine mandates, vaccine passports, and ANY violation of your freedoms!,” Jackson, a physician to former President Donald Trump, tweeted Sunday.
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