Reserve Citizen Airmen received their COVID-19 vaccinations at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., in April 2021.

Reserve Citizen Airmen received their COVID-19 vaccinations at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., in April 2021. U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Alexis Suarez

COVID-19 Vaccines Will Become Mandatory For Troops Next Month—or Sooner

Biden says he will approve Austin's recommendation to require vaccinations by mid-September, or sooner if the FDA formally approves them.

Updated: 3:55 p.m. ET.

The coronavirus vaccine will become mandatory for all Defense Department employees next month, according to a memo Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sent to staff on Monday.

The guidance that all uniformed service members and Defense Department staff will be required to get the vaccine follows a White House announcement last month that mandated all federal workers either assert that they have been vaccinated, with penalties including criminal prosecution if they lie, or submit to strict rules to stop the spread of the virus including weekly testing, mandatory mask wearing and social distancing. At that time, the administration also asked the Pentagon to determine “how and when” the vaccine would be required for troops.

The Pentagon will seek to make the vaccine mandatory for the Defense Department workforce in mid-September or as soon as the U.S. Food and Drug Agency formally approves the vaccine, whichever comes first. 

“To defend this nation, we need a healthy and ready force,” Austin wrote in the memo. “I strongly encourage all DoD military and civilian personnel—as well as contractor personnel—to get vaccinated now and for military service members to not wait for the mandate.” 

The memo was first reported by the Associated Press.

The government has already deemed vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson safe and authorized them for emergency use, but they have not been formally approved. The Pfizer vaccine could get full approval in early September. 

If a vaccine is approved by the FDA, Austin can make it mandatory without the president. If no shot has been formally approved, President Joe Biden will have to issue a waiver to add it to the list of more than a dozen shots already required by troops, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a briefing Monday. 

The move is expected to easily win Biden’s approval, if needed. On Monday, the president commended Austin’s step to make the COVID vaccine mandatory for troops, saying that the vaccines are safe and “will save lives. Period.” 

“We are still on a wartime footing, and every American who is eligible should take immediate steps to get vaccinated right away,” Biden said in a statement. “I am proud that our military women and men will continue to help lead the charge in the fight against this pandemic, as they so often do, by setting the example of keeping their fellow Americans safe.”

Whether the government can and should mandate vaccines has become a hot-button political issue, with some Republicans claiming “my body, my choice,” and that making a shot mandatory violates their rights. The Pentagon’s mandate is likely to spark backlash among some members of the GOP, though the rising number of COVID-19 cases and deaths has forced some Republicans to vocally support getting the shot.

“Teleworking isn’t an option for the soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and guardians who work every day to confront near-peer rivals and non-state terrorists,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. “We have already seen COVID-19 affect our readiness downrange. Our adversaries will take any advantage they can over us. We must not allow COVID-19 to be a hindrance on our force.” 

Democrats also applauded the step to require vaccination for Defense Department staff.

“Some may try and criticize the secretary’s decision, using anti-vax arguments that are not supported by facts or science to politicize the conversation,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “The health and safety of our troops, and our national security, is what truly matters, and mandatory vaccination is the proven solution to provide protection from the COVID-19 virus and delta variant." 

Services are working on implementation plans to deliver to Austin that will lay out the timeline and logistics of efficiently vaccinating the force, Kirby said. The Pentagon is also working on a policy directive expected to be released “in the coming days” on what consequences troops might face if they refuse the vaccine. 

“You can consider this memo today as what we would call in the military a warning order … to the force that this is coming and we want you to be ready for it,” Kirby said.

Nearly three-quarters of active duty troops have already received at least one dose of the vaccine, Kirby said. 

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley released his own message to the force on Monday with a hand-written note across the bottom that “getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is a key force protection and readiness issue.”

“Mandating vaccines in the military is not new,” he wrote. “We are responsible for each other’s health and safety.” 

The Pentagon already requires troops to get other vaccines. Service members on American soil must get vaccines to prevent chickenpox, hepatitis A, the flu and polio, for example. Troops deploying abroad have an even longer list. Those going to Korea, for example, are required to get a typhoid vaccine, and some countries also require troops to get a shot to prevent yellow fever.