A sailor verifies a COVID-19 vaccine card aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge in the Atlantic Ocean, March 23, 2022.

A sailor verifies a COVID-19 vaccine card aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge in the Atlantic Ocean, March 23, 2022. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jesse Schwab

Defense Secretary, Joint Chiefs Chair Rebuff Claims Vaccine Mandate Hurts Recruiting

GOP lawmakers try to pin recruiting, retention misses on DOD’s COVID requirements.

Is the Defense Department’s COVID-vaccine mandate hurting recruiting and retention? Two Republican House members tried to make the case on Tuesday, but received pushback from the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs chairman.

The Army National Guard missed its recruiting goal in 2021 by 8,000, while the Army’s 2023 budget request would shrink end strength by 12,000 active-duty troops, Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana said Tuesday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing into the spending proposal.

“Is the Army cutting their numbers because they know they can’t recruit enough people to meet their quotas?” Banks asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.

Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana offered his theory: “I think the largest headwind [to recruiting] is inescapably the reaction that DOD took to COVID.” 

Austin responded by pointing to a number of factors that have hurt recruiting in recent years. For long stretches, recruiters were unable to visit high schools for in-person recruiting while students were learning virtually. Unemployment is currently below 4 percent, which Austin called a “key issue.” 

In a recent Defense Writers Group meeting, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville also blamed the strong economy and said part of the solution would be recruiting beyond a small set of families whose members have served.

But Banks and Johnson had other thoughts. 

“It's the department's COVID vaccine mandate, and there's just no way around it,” Johnson said. 

Both lawmakers said the military’s personnel goals are hampered by DOD policy that new recruits be vaccinated and that troops who refuse the vaccine be ejected.

“On March 18, the U.S. Army discharged three soldiers, the first time it has booted troops for failing to comply with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate,” Banks said. “It is projected that 2,609 total soldiers”—he cited no source for this—”the size of a couple of Army battalions, have not taken the vaccine and will likely be separated from the Army. Once again, how is this loss of personnel going to hurt the overall strength of the Army?”

“I think if 2,000 are kicked out, I think that would hurt,” Milley responded. “But I think there's an issue of education here and persuasion and making sure that these soldiers are making informed decisions.”

Milley was referring to the several rounds of counseling by health professionals and unit leaders that service members go through before they may formally refuse a vaccine. He said the number of service members across the force refusing to be vaccinated are “very, very low.” 

Johnson argued that the COVID mandate was an obstacle to a large chunk of young people who might otherwise enlist. More than 40 percent of men aged 18 to 24 have chosen not to become fully vaccinated—52 percent in Johnson’s southeast region of the country52 percent, Johnson said, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The DoD is having a recruiting and retention crisis because it’s disqualified over half of the male population from serving in the military,” Johnson said. “And then we're adding fuel to the crisis because there's this charade about the religious exemption process for service members and I believe it's blatantly unconstitutional.” 

Austin said he had no intention of changing the vaccine mandate and said he “certainly disagrees with the premise” that the vaccine is having such a significant impact on military end strength. Milley echoed Austin.

“We get a lot of vaccinations. Anthrax is very, very low out there and we still get an anthrax vaccination. So I think getting vaccinated is part of the readiness issue of the health of the force,” Milley said. “We are an institution that has a sole set of requirements in terms of the health of the force, and shots, and etc. There's a policy and our job is to enforce the policy.”