I write to you on behalf of your Airmen and Guardians. I hear from a good number of them every day … in particular, Service Academy cadets and grads – and their parents, and grandparents. I write to you in the same spirit as then Captain, and now Retired General, Ron Keys, a great former boss of mine, wrote in his now infamous “Dear Boss” letter to General Wilbur Creech, in the late 1970s. Like Capt Keys, I am animated (understatement) by ground truth observations, and what those observations say and portend about the priorities and future of our Air (and now Space) Force.
In his days just after the Vietnam War, Capt Keys saw an Air Force which no longer worked right in myriad ways. He saw commanders focused on shined boots, haircuts, scarves, and sleeves rolled down – vice combat capability. He saw an Air Force which was bone dry on “Espirit” … and was consequently running out of “de Corps” … as talented Airmen, especially pilots, had enough and headed for the exits.
The circumstances have certainly changed. But the bottom-line effects of today are eerily similar.
I could write volumes on several observed (force-dividing) issues. But no, this letter is about just one thing. And that is the vaccine mandate.
As CDR Mike “Viper” Metcalf said to LT Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in the original Top Gun movie – “A good pilot is always compelled to evaluate what’s happened, so he can apply what he’s learned.”
That is sound, on-target advice. As humans, we are dynamic, learning creatures. What have we observed and learned? More importantly, are we applying what we’ve learned?
On 23 Aug 21, the FDA approved Pfizer’s application for its COMIRNATY COVID-19 Vaccine. The next day, 24 Aug 21, the Secretary of Defense directed mandatory vaccination of all servicemembers as “necessary to protect the Force and defend the American people.”
In his order, the Secretary summarily overruled long-standing vaccine policy/practice in joint service regulations by nixing natural immunity: “Those with previous COVID-19 infection are not considered fully vaccinated.”
In his order, the Secretary made clear only FDA-approved vaccines could be mandated: “[M]andatory vaccination against COVID-19 will only use COVID-19 vaccines that receive full licensure from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)” – i.e., COMIRNATY. But the Secretary added the trailing caveat it be “in accordance with FDA-approved labeling and guidance.”
As a result of that trailing caveat, thousands of servicemembers (unknowingly) received the Emergency Use Authorized (EUA) Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine – not the FDA-approved COMIRNATY. Why? As the FDA itself noted in footnote 9 of their letter to Pfizer, this was because there was a shortage of COMIRNATY: “Although COMIRNATY (COVID-19 Vaccine, mRNA) is approved to prevent COVID-19 in individuals 16 years of age and older, there is not sufficient approved vaccine available for distribution to this population…”
You may ask – what is the difference between (the FDA-licensed) COMIRNATY and (the EUA-approved) Pfizer-BioNTech? The FDA explained this in footnote 8 of their letter: “The products are legally distinct with certain differences that do not impact safety or effectiveness” … and they could thus be “used interchangeably.”
The question begs an answer – if they’re the same, why didn’t the FDA just approve both? (A cynical person might observe it’s because there’s essentially no monetary liability where an EUA product is used.)
For the record, the FDA then employed this exact same interchangeability switcheroo in later approving Moderna’s SPIKEVAX.
That’s the background. Today, the mandate remains rigidly in place. That is so notwithstanding what we’ve observed and learned in the past 14+ months, to include the objections of good, honest, reasonable, patriotic, and critical thinking servicemembers. This includes:
USEFULNESS AND SAFETY of the VACCINE
We now know the vaccine doesn’t prevent infection or transmission of Covid. While it may offer (short-term) protection against hospitalization or death, it doesn’t prevent these either. In short, it doesn’t operate as a vaccine, as we’ve historically understood that term. At best, it operates as a short-term, pre-onset therapeutic designed to mitigate symptoms.
Whatever benefits the vaccine may offer, it must be gauged against our force demographics and its expected benefits. Our Air Force is largely made up of 18-39 year-olds – healthy, physically fit, 18-39 year-olds. Just 2.4% of all Covid deaths in our country are borne by this huge age group. (And you can surmise these were, in general, people who were compromised or with co-morbidities.) In contrast, Americans over 50 sustained 93.2% of all Covid deaths. (For the record, I am vaccinated.)
As the science settles, the VAERS and DMEDs data bases, and insurance actuarial data, are displaying alarming trends – with the vaccine as the recent injected (pun not intended) variable. To be clear, there is a growing empirical body of evidence of harmful side effects, to include heart-related problems in young males, and death.
As of today, the CDC itself tells us that between 14 Dec 20 and 27 Oct 22, “VAERS received 17,073 preliminary reports of death among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine.” Do the math, and that’s a span of 683 days – or 25 reports of death every day.
Continuing to mandate servicemembers receive the vaccine approved on 23 Aug 21 – a vaccine designed for a virus which has since mutated several times – will have little expected efficacy against current strains. The data associated with Omicron underscores this point.
Finally, many of us – both vaccinated and unvaccinated – have now had Covid. For the young and healthy, it is comparable to a cold in terms of symptoms and duration.
The point? If we evaluate what has happened, and we apply what we have learned … the blanket mandate should be shelved. Now.
LEGALITY OF THE ORDER, ITS IMPLEMENTATION, and EFFECTS.
As noted, the order nixed prior infection/natural immunity, and because of known shortages, mandated servicemembers (unknowingly) take an EUA-only approved vaccine.
I’m a pilot, not a lawyer. But I speak to a lot of (good) lawyers, and this is the law. Americans – to include servicemembers – never lose the right to legally refuse an EUA product. 21 USC § 360bbb-3 imposes responsibilities upon the government to inform Americans (to include servicemembers) of this right. The only exception to this duty is a narrow presidential waiver process for the military IAW 10 USC §1107a. As you know, President Biden did not invoke a presidential waiver.
There are at least two court cases pending which may decide this matter. Of course, courts decide, after-the-fact, what we can – and cannot – do. Courts don’t tell leaders what they should do. Air Force Instruction 1-1, Air Force Standards, sheds light on this duty. At paragraph 1.3, it tells us:
Core Values. The Air Force Core Values are Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence In All We Do. Integrity is a character trait. It is the willingness to do what is right even when no one is looking. It is the “moral compass” – the inner voice; the voice of self–control; the basis for the trust that is essential in today’s military… (Emphasis added.)
“It is the willingness to do what is right even when no one is looking.” Here, everybody is looking. But the important thing is to do what you believe to be right for the mission and the people. If you think this order, given what you’ve learned over the past 14+ months, is right, good, smart, and necessary, then own it and shout it loud. If you don’t, speak up just as loudly to get it eliminated. But it is, in my view, an abdication of both command responsibility and our respective oaths to sidestep the matter by foisting the decision over to judges with no direct responsibility for the mission, or the people.
DENIAL OF RELIGIOUS ACCOMMODATION REQUESTS
There are other associated concerns. In his order, the Secretary directed “Mandatory vaccination of Service members will be subject to any identified contraindications and any administrative or other exemptions established in Military Department policy.” Prominently, this alludes to religious-based exemptions – as the medical exemption of natural immunity was, as noted above, summarily dispatched. As you must know, the Air Force has not distinguished itself (understatement) in the process of considering religious accommodations. Various federal courts have repeatedly decried the Air Force (and Navy) processes as e.g., a sham. In short, the operative analysis apparently boils down to this – we accept you have a good faith objection – which the Air Force cannot or will not accommodate.
It would have been simpler if you stated religious-based exemption requests could not be accommodated and would not be approved … or set out the (very) narrow criteria which might justify an exemption – e.g., permanently-approved telework status. At least, that would have saved the time of all those involved in the multi-step denial process – commanders – from squadron to the MAJCOM level, chaplains, doctors, lawyers … and the (hopeful) requesting Airmen as well. In some sense, the facade of due process is worse than the pre-ordained result of same.
READINESS CAPABILITY AND TRUST
I would hope you continue to weigh the effects of this mandate in determining its continued usefulness. Despite the relentless vaccination campaign, many good Airmen did not succumb. Disproportionately represented among these holdouts are pilots and other tip-of-the-sword personnel. But that’s just the personnel who are in the Air Force today. Of course, some trained assets gave up and left by retirement or voluntary discharge if the opportunity presented. This does not include those who wanted to continue serving but were involuntarily discharged.
But what of our future? We see would-be Airmen voting with their feet. You know what is happening at our Academy. Recruiting for these formerly highly sought-after admission spots has plummeted.
With good reason and some personal knowledge, I suspect a huge share of these “feet voters” are those who studied this area well and decided the vaccine doesn’t make sense for them in balancing the risks of the disease versus the risks of the vaccine. (Given what we’ve learned over these 14+ months, this is not an ignorant or unfounded viewpoint.) They understand taking the vaccine is the price of an admission ticket. Much as they desire to attend USAFA, or join the Air Force, they don’t want to buy that ticket. Bear in mind, these would-be Airmen and Cadets are not anti-vaccine … or anti- “mandate” … when a mandate makes sense.
On a personal level I am compelled to add this – the most egregious effects of the mandate are on patriotic men and women (and their families) who love and want to serve our country. It is heartbreaking for me to see how they have suffered waiting for their cases to play out in the courts and other forums. For them, they understandably feel like victims of a purge.
Where does trust come from? In a military context, I maintain trust comes from the sense one’s leadership is intelligent, informed, and ready to stand up and do the right thing. It is, in a word, Courage. As Aristotle observed, “Courage is the first virtue that makes all the other Virtues possible.” As our Airmen –both those serving and those in the wings – look up, they unfortunately see leaders who to date, are unable or unwilling to change course in response to observed facts. For leadership, the vaccine mandate has become an inflexible quest, which is impervious to changing facts. For Airmen and Guardians, it’s become a visible symbol of their allegiance and submission to leadership. Given the facts as we’ve learned them, this is an unhealthy and unwarranted construct.
You can change this. Everybody makes errors. To include Presidents, CEOs, Generals, and other strategic leaders, as well as people in more humble stations of life. There are only two differences. One, when strategic leaders make errors, the consequences are larger. Two, strategic leaders are less accustomed to making (and thus having to acknowledge) errors.
In the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, President Kennedy said this on 27 Apr 61, to the American Newspaper Publishers Association:
“This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: “An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them. Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed – and no republic can survive.”
A great strength of our military is our ability to be flexible in our thinking and actions in order to rapidly adapt to changing situations. It is time to apply that flexibility to the COVID mandate. For the sake of our Air Force, I implore you to re-examine the mandate, in light of the changed facts, and the drastically negative consequences. I ask you to re-examine the issue holistically with fresh eyes. And consider this simple question – knowing what you now know, would you implement the mandate today?
Mr. Secretary and Chiefs – if the answer is NO – as I firmly believe you will find it to be – then I ask you to summon the courage to take all steps in your power to axe the mandate and make the vaccine voluntary.
In speaking with a congressman, he said a service chief stated this was “all Secretary Austin.” If that is the case, I know your Airmen and Guardians will greatly appreciate you strategizing the best way to approach him on this issue and convince him that ending the mandate and making the vaccine voluntary is the humane, moral, and to put it plainly, the right thing to do.
ROBERT D BISHOP JR
Lt Gen USAF (Ret)
Stand Together Against Racism and Radicalism in the Services, Inc