Air Force training command reports high vaccination rate despite over 1000 seeking exemption or refusing

U.S. Air Force basic trainees from the 37th Training Wing wait during a mandatory observation period after receiving their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, May 14, 2021. While receiving the COVID-19 vaccine is currently optional for trainees, the goal is to achieve 100 percent vaccination rates. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Tory Patterson)

Sig Christenson

San Antonio Express-News

Small but determined numbers of military personnel have resisted the Pentagon’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy — some hoping for exemptions and some flat-out refusing.

But they have become an increasingly tiny minority, their numbers shrinking as they quit the service or get kicked out.

In the Air Education and Training Command, headquartered in San Antonio, 97.7 percent of uniformed personnel are fully vaccinated. There remain just 86 airmen who have refused, along with 957 who are seeking exemptions, according to a series of PowerPoint slides prepared last week for the organization.

That response is similar across the Air Force as a whole; the service reported last week that 97.8 percent of active-duty airmen had complied with the vaccination mandate ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in August. So have most members of the Army, Navy and Marines.

The Air Force has provided servicewide statistics to the public but not for individual commands such as the AETC, which is responsible for training new recruits and all subsequent specialties, including pilots.

An Air Force source who obtained the PowerPoint slides shared them with the San Antonio Express-News. An AETC spokeswoman could not confirm or dispute their authenticity when contacted this week.

Across the armed services, 23 lawsuits have been filed to try to avoid the vaccine order, according to a Jan. 31 memo from Maj. Marc Nowak, an attorney with the Judge Advocate Corps at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.

The memo was posted last week on a Facebook page curated by a former airman who publishes commentary on Air Force activities and policies from service members and their families.

The lawsuits variously name Defense Secretary Austin, President Joe Biden or Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III.

“In four of these,” the memo stated, “the plaintiffs use pseudonyms claiming their identities need to be shielded from the defendants or the public. The judges in those cases have issued protective orders requiring the plaintiffs to reveal their identities to the Department of Justice and to certain individuals within DoD.”

A federal court in Georgia on Tuesday issued a preliminary injunction against the Pentagon in a lawsuit by an Air Force officer represented by attorneys for the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit that takes on religious liberty cases. The order affected a single case involving religious objections to the vaccine mandate.

The Army last week said 3,350 of its soldiers had not taken the vaccine, from among whom it has received 2,910 requests for religious exemptions and 709 for medical exemptions. Only a few exemptions had been approved while 3,073 official reprimands had been ordered.

As of Feb, 9, the Navy said, 5,162 active-duty sailors and 3,167 reservists were unvaccinated. The Navy said it kicked out 218, including one reservist, granting all of them honorable discharges.

The Navy has reported 17 deaths among 84,059 COVID-19 cases.

The Marine Corps has approved 735 exemptions, including just three of 3,567 requests for religious accommodations. So far, 566 Marines have been separated from the corps for refusing to comply with the mandate.

The Air Force reported it had approved 1,476 medical exemptions and 1,837 administrative exemptions for the active-duty, guard and reserve components, which together contain 501,000 service members. Religious exemptions were far harder to get, with only eight approved and 3,222 disapproved.

So far during the pandemic, the Air Force has had 12 deaths among 75,309 COVID cases among active-duty airmen and reservists.

The AETC runs 12 major installations and supports other units on numerous bases across the globe.

The series of slides updating its commander, Lt. Gen. Marshall “Brad” Webb, and others included that the 86 vaccination refusals by airmen who did not seek exemptions had numbered 115 the previous week. It was unclear if the reduction was caused by those leaving the service.

The slides showed that 487 airmen in the 19th Air Force, based at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, had not received their shots, most of whom had sought religious exemptions. The total included 25 outright refusals.

Holdouts numbered 50, including 12 outright refusals, in the 502nd Air Base Wing, which provides logistics support for the three major installations and the Camp Bullis training range that make up JBSA.

The AETC dramatically restructured basic training after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted life across the United States two years ago, rigidly enforcing mask discipline and isolating new arrivals during their first two weeks at boot camp at JBSA-Lackland.

Since last fall, after 23 recruits had refused to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, the Air Force Recruiting Service has required enlistees to sign a document before entering basic training, acknowledging that they will get their shots.

But the recruiting service itself had 56 airmen who had not received the vaccine, including two who didn’t seek exemptions, according to last week’s presentation.

Most civilian workers in the AETC had been vaccinated, 17,496 in all, but 879 had sought religious exemptions and 274 requested medical waivers. Only two exemptions have been granted, according to the presentation.

At the 59th Medical Wing, home to Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center at JBSA-Lackland, 75 airmen sought exemptions and six outright refused to be vaccinated.

Religious exemption requests undergo a process that tries “to balance the government’s compelling interest in accomplishing our mission with the member’s sincerely held belief,” and teams of chaplains, medical providers, Air Force lawyers and others recommend the least restrictive way to do that, the training command said.

“If the commander determines the accommodation cannot be made without adversely affecting military readiness based on the health and safety of the unit and member, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline, he will deny the religious accommodation request,” an AETC statement said.

The struggle to get all service members vaccinated and the process of discharging those who won’t comply is taking place against a decline in new virus cases and slower declines in hospitalizations and deaths.

None of 698 recruits arriving for basic training Feb. 8 tested positive for the coronavirus, and positive cases there remain at or below 6 percent, the AETC said.

Among the slides in last week’s presentation was a COVID-19 situation report prepared by Col. Mike Higgins, the AETC’s surgeon general, which contained a message marked “BLUF,” an acronym for “bottom line up front.”

“Overall omicron case rates, hospitalizations and test positivity rates dropping,” it stated. “Death rates stable. Military Health System (including key AETC medical platforms) remain stressed.”


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