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Some Fort Carson Soldiers Question The Military's Vaccine Mandate

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made it clear this week all military service members will be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine immediately. This comes after the Food and Drug Administration gave its full approval to the Pfizer vaccine just days ago. Colorado Public Radio's Dan Boyce reports.

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: There's a state highway running south out of the city of Colorado Springs. On the east side of the highway, you have Fort Carson Army base, about 25,000 soldiers; on the west side of the highway, the Black Bear Coffee & Tea Lodge. You can always find service members there drinking lattes in their camouflage fatigues. One soldier holding a cup is very clear about her take on getting vaccinated.

JEANIE: I just feel like something's wrong with this vaccine if they're trying to force it down everyone's throats.

BOYCE: Jeanie is 25 years old, a mechanic on the base. She asked that we not use her last name because she fears some form of punishment from her superiors for speaking out. She hasn't had the COVID shot yet.

JEANIE: I feel as if I'm healthy already, so why would I want to put that bad stuff in my body, you know?

BOYCE: She's heard the vaccine effects fertility and menstrual cycles, though multiple scientific studies show no evidence of that. Still, she does not want it. And she also knows she doesn't really have a choice.

JEANIE: I mean, I kind of belong to the government, so I'm going to have to get it unless I can figure something else out. But (laughter)...

ANTHONY KUHN: So I represent quite a few service members who are requesting waivers.

BOYCE: New York attorney Anthony Kuhn is an Iraq veteran himself and focuses his legal practice on large nationwide military cases. His firm has been getting vaccine calls for a while.

KUHN: At least three or four months now, maybe longer.

BOYCE: When someone joins the military, they have to get all kinds of vaccines, like against hepatitis, HPV, measles, tetanus, meningitis, pneumonia, yearly flu shots. Kuhn says it's not unheard of to obtain waivers to avoid these. Some health conditions can excuse members from getting them, and some narrow religious objections work, too.

KUHN: Individuals who can show those strong ties and show that there's strong religious reasons why they should not get the vaccine, they can work through their chaplain, through their command and may obtain a waiver as well.

BOYCE: Up until this week, Kuhn had been looking into other legal avenues for soldiers to avoid unapproved vaccines. But after the FDA's decision on the Pfizer shot...

KUHN: I think that ship's dead in the water. It's going to be a very difficult case to win.

BOYCE: The door of the Black Bear Lodge swings open, and Command Sergeant Major Dave Silva heads back to Fort Carson. He was visiting his daughter. She works at the coffee shop. Silva is full on pro-COVID vaccine.

DAVE SILVA: Well, I think it's absolutely essential for the safety of our force.

BOYCE: He says most of the group of soldiers he oversees haven't had a problem getting the vaccine; some have.

SILVA: The best answer I ever got was when a young soldier said, well, the Army's never asked me - never offered me the opportunity to say no before, so (laughter) I'm saying no just because I can. I was like - that was actually to me the best reason I'd ever heard.

BOYCE: That opportunity to say no, that is no longer on the table. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a memo the nation's military branches should impose ambitious timelines for all of their members to get the vaccines. The mandatory inoculations will only consist of those approved by the FDA, which, again, at this point is only the Pfizer-BioNTech shot. Moderna has also just completed filing for full FDA approval of its vaccine.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Colorado Springs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.