The U.S. military services have all set deadlines for when service members must be vaccinated against COVID-19. The first of those deadlines, for active duty Air Force personnel, arrives tomorrow.
Right now, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said about 97% of the total force has been vaccinated with at least one dose. During a press conference today at the Pentagon, he told reporters this includes 99% of sailors, 97% of airmen, and 93% of Marines. Among soldiers, he said, the vaccination rate is above 90%.
"So just in terms of first dosage, there's been a lot more progress and we continue to see the men and women of the force doing the right thing - which is getting vaccinated," he said.
Kirby said commanders have plenty of options for enforcing vaccine mandates short of resorting to actions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has asked commanders to execute those options first.
"I think the secretary has been very clear with the leaders of the military departments that he wants them to execute the mandate with a sense of compassion and understanding," he said. "I know he made this clear to them that he knows as a former commander himself, that leaders have a range of tools available to them to help troops make the right decisions for themselves, for the units, for the families, short of using the Uniform Code of Military Justice, therefore, short of punitive measures."
Nevertheless, Kirby said, the vaccine mandates are lawful orders, and commanders may eventually need to escalate the pressure they put on servicemembers to get vaccinated.
"He also trusts that commanders ... will ultimately do what they need to do for the readiness of their unit, and if that comes to doing something of a punitive nature, they certainly have that right and that authority," Kirby said.
When it comes to service members being deployment ready, based on their vaccination status, Kirby said the secretary of defense is relying on the individual services and commanders to make those calls.
"The secretary will delegate that specific decision down to commanders at the appropriate level," Kirby said. "When you say deployable, what does that mean? They're different units, different services, define deployments differently. And so he wants to let the services manage that decision-making process for themselves and the commander specifically. Obviously, though, he wants as much of the force as possible vaccinated, because he still believes that a vaccinated force is a more ready force."