On 15 December 2022, the Senate passed a colossal $858 Billion military spending bill. By a vote of 83-11, the bill passed and went to President Biden for signature. Notably, the GOP included language that eliminates the vaccine mandate for the Department of Defense. Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had vehemently opposed the proposal to remove the military vaccine mandate, claiming his mandate had saved hundreds of lives. In reality, 96 active-duty members had died of Covid-19 in nearly 3 years. Austin, who was fully vaccinated and boosted, famously contracted Covid-19 twice in 2022 alone, despite his obedience to his own mandate.
Thousands of active duty servicemembers and dozens of cadets from all service academies had been separated for refusing the vaccine, even ones who sought exemptions of religious grounds. In addition to low morale, the services had experienced enormous recruiting shortfalls, prompting 20 Republican governors to send President Biden a letter last week stating that the vaccine mandate was risking National Guard effectiveness.
On 4 December 2022, Austin had told the media, “We lost a million people to this virus. A million people died in the United States of America. We lost hundreds in DoD. So, this mandate has kept people healthy.” In 2021, as soon as the vaccine was FDA approved, Austin ordered the mandate for the Covid-19 vaccination. Non-compliant servicemembers were harassed by chains of command and in many cases, separated from the military. Very few exceptions were authorized and DoD refused to provide an explanation despite repeated demands from Congress.
No cadets at the service academies died from Covid-19. Amazingly, healthy 18-22 year olds didn’t seem to be at risk from the disease itself. Less than 0.3% of deaths nationwide occurred in Americans 24 years of age and younger. Most of the Covid-19 deaths were in older Americans and those with co-morbidities, 2 categories West Point cadets in particular are absent from.
In early November 2022, the 6 remaining USMA cadets who refused the vaccine on religious grounds were ordered to get the vaccine late in the day, denying them legal recourse to examine the order. The USMA Inspector General denied cadet appeals to scrutinize the legality of the order. Despite letters of appeal from USMA graduates and a Congressman-elect discussing the issue on national TV, the Superintendent of West Point, LTG Steven Gilland, issued General Officer Memorandums of Reprimand to the cadets who then awaited separation orders.
While many who knew him before his West Point tenure describe LTG Gilland as a good and decent officer in Army line units, this particular general officer placed obedience to the SECDEF and therefore ‘brown nosing’ above religious freedom or even patience to see how the political winds will handle the mandate. His decision to go ahead and punish the cadets and prepare expulsion proceedings demonstrates his ethical downfall once he began to wear stars on his uniform.
Unless President Biden vetoes the defense spending bill that eliminates the DoD vaccine mandate, the hated military Covid-19 requirement will end. Any servicemember still on active-duty will instantly be out of jeopardy. Further congressional/senatorial demands may seek re-instatement of servicemembers and removal of unfavorable punishments meted out under SECDEF Austin’s misguided policy. The 5 cadets LTG Gilland reprimanded will remain at USMA and hopefully graduate and bring their courage and conviction to the Army. That being said, forever more it will be known that when LTG Gilland had a chance to play the hero and pause (or halt) the policy at his academy, he chose instead to be a mindless, obedient servant of the SECDEF. Cadets deserve a better leader to emulate at West Point.
John Hughes, MD
Veteran of OIF/OEF
Member of www.starrs.us