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Fmr. SECDEF Panetta calls for mandatory COVID vaccines for military

Leon Panetta delivers remarks upon retiring as Defense Secretary on Feb. 8, 2013, at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt Sun L. Vega)
July 12, 2021

On Sunday, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called on President Joe Biden to make the COVID-19 coronavirus vaccines mandatory for all U.S. troops.

Panetta, who served as CIA director and later as Defense Secretary under President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Biden, told Greta Van Susteren in an interview that aired Sunday that he believes Biden should issue an order requiring all U.S. troops take the vaccine.

“I frankly think the president ought to issue an order requiring everybody in the military to get a COVID-19 shot, period,” Panetta said. “That’s an issue involving our national security. The last damn thing you need is to have those in the military that are our warriors unable to respond to a mission because they’ve gotten COVID-19. There’s no excuse for that.”

Panetta added, “When I was in the Army, I got every shot required by the military, shots in both arms as well as everywhere else. There is no reason we should not require a COVID-19 shot for everyone in the military, period.”

At the moment all COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. are allowed through an emergency use authorization (EUA) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). No U.S. COVID-19 vaccine has full FDA approval and to date, the vaccines remain available on a voluntary basis to U.S. service members.

President Joe Biden has not decided whether he will mandate vaccines for the military once there is FDA approval. In an April interview, Biden said, “I don’t know, I’m going to leave that to the military,” before adding, “I’m not saying I won’t. I think you’re going to see more and more of them getting it. I think it is a tough call as to whether or not they should be required to have to get it in the military.”

Panetta’s call for Biden to mandate COVID vaccines to U.S. troops comes after a report the Army is preparing to make the vaccine mandatory for its entire force by September.

Following the Army’s reported mandatory vaccine plans, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) tweeted that he had had U.S. service members tell him they would seek a way to quit their military service if they are forced to take the COVID-19 vaccine. The exact means by which a service member can “quit” is unclear. Troops can’t typically leave the military until their period of military service is over, though Massie noted some instances in which service members were able to resign under honorable conditions after refusing the Anthrax vaccine in the late 90s and early 2000s.

A 2004 federal court decision put a stop to the military’s mandatory Anthrax vaccination program and ruled the previous six years of vaccine administration to be illegal. Many U.S. service members were, however, given dishonorable discharges, and even court-martialed for refusing the vaccine and many have struggled to have their military records corrected in the years since the 2004 court decision.

The U.S. Navy is currently the military branch with the highest percentage of service members either partially or fully vaccinated, at 77 percent. The Army is the second-most vaccinated branch with a 70 percent vaccination rate, and the U.S. Air Force next with 61 percent vaccinated. The U.S. Marine Corps is the least vaccinated branch with 58 percent of service members either partially or fully vaccinated.