Vaccine holdouts at key military bases pose staffing dilemma


  • November 20, 2021
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Hospital Corpsman 2nd Caine Collins instructs recruits on the importance of their COVID vaccination card before receiving their COVID-19 vaccine in Pacific Fleet Drill Hall at Recruit Training Command at Great Lakes, Illinois, May 26, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Spencer Fling)

Hospital Corpsman 2nd Caine Collins instructs recruits on the importance of their COVID vaccination card before receiving their COVID-19 vaccine in Pacific Fleet Drill Hall at Recruit Training Command at Great Lakes, Illinois, May 26, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Spencer Fling)

[Editor's note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Politics.]

By Susan Crabtree
Real Clear Politics

In late October, Phil Teuscher’s supervisor showed up at his office at the Navy’s top weapons testing base to let him know his name was on a list of thousands of base personnel who had failed to acknowledge receipt of the COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

In August, all branches of the U.S. military gave its service members and civilian employees an ultimatum: Get the vaccine or face being fired. At the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California, the remote base where Teuscher has worked for 20 years, the first part of the mandate required all personnel to officially acknowledge receipt of the directive. The next step was a signed statement saying whether they have received a shot.

But Teuscher, 58, and many others who work for the Navy on and around the base have refused to comply with either directive. Using an online messaging app, Teuscher started connecting with other like-minded China Lake workers pushing back against the requirement. The group quickly grew to more than 300 participants, all deeply concerned about receiving the vaccine or outright refusing it. Each day at lunchtime, dozens of workers gather outside the base to protest the mandate.

Some employees connected to the base, all of whom require security clearances to work there, are pointing to underlying health problems they believe the vaccine could exacerbate while others cite religious exemptions. Teuscher, a production manager for a highly sophisticated missile program at the base’s Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, or NAWCWD, is not making either claim. Instead, he’s choosing to fight the legality of the mandate on principle.

“My situation is a little bit different. I could retire but I’m choosing not to,” he tells RealClearPolitics. “I’ve got my 20 years in. … I’m choosing to fight it.”

Other vaccine holdouts aren’t so fortunate and would be forced to find non-military work if they continue to buck the requirement.

But the Navy faces its own dilemma as the deadlines loom. With roughly 10% of the base’s highly educated and trained personnel refusing the shot, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain all the classified weapons and their testing operations in top working order if all resisters are fired.

The Navy itself touts its NAWCWD employees operating at China Lake and Naval Air Station Point Mugu in Ventura County as “some of the brightest minds in the world” conducting work in “high-tech areas including battlespace integration, airborne electronic attack, aircraft survivability, counter-improvised explosive devices, directed energy, robotics … and more.”

China Lake, the Navy’s largest single landholding at 1.1 million acres, is also home to the air test and evaluation squadron for the Navy’s F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter jet, as well as numerous other aircraft and helicopters, all requiring a highly specialized trained workforce to maintain them.

“We still have a job to do, and we’re trying to stay focused on it,” another China Lake civilian employee told RCP. “But the amount of people that we’re hearing possibly not going through [with the vaccine] and ultimately facing separation from the service will inevitably affect our ability to complete our mission and support the warfighter.”

So far, roughly 40% of the base’s estimated 3,000 employees (those working for the Navy on base or nearby) are vaccinated, according to estimates circulating throughout the base. Those numbers are likely to rise as vaccination deadlines draw closer in the coming weeks, but they still could cause serious readiness problems for the Navy and its weapons systems. Active-duty sailors and Marines must by fully vaccinated by Nov. 28, while those in the select reserve have until Dec. 28. The Pentagon is requiring federal civilian employees to be vaccinated by Nov. 22.

The high number of workers – civilian and military – refusing to get the vaccine at China Lake and other key research and development bases could force the Navy to make some difficult decisions in the coming months. All of these civilian workers must hold a security clearance just to enter the base, and many hold advanced engineering degrees and extensive technical training that takes years to acquire.

Recruiting and replacing such workers won’t be instant or easy – especially at China Lake. Located in California’s remote Mojave Desert, it’s some 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles. In recent years, the base has experienced serious attrition problems as engineers and other highly skilled workers flee for more lucrative jobs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, according to several sources familiar with the employment challenges.

“It just blows my mind that they are willing to lose people that already made the essential career and life decision to move to China Lake,” one civilian DoD employee remarked, adding that the nearby Walmart Supercenter is the biggest sign of civilization in the area.

The quandary the military faces isn’t limited to China Lake. At the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Corona, Calif., at least 100 employees out of roughly 2,000 total are participating in an online messaging group resisting the vaccine, which just got up and running two weeks ago.

For instance, Nick Goldberg, a 36-year-old mechanical engineer at the base who is also refusing to receive the shot on principle, holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and numerous certifications related to his job designing and building inspection equipment for weapons systems. Goldberg has worked at the center for 13 years, along the way earning patents on behalf of the U.S. government for several cutting-edge technologies.

“We’re all scrambling to make sense of the rules and deadlines, which keep changing,” Goldberg, who organized a protest outside the base last week, said in an interview. “The DoD is thinking they can just let all these people go and it will be no big deal because they’ve got managers telling them they get 60 to 70 resumes a week on their desk. Well, you can’t just replace that kind of knowledge easily.”

A Navy spokesman declined to comment about the readiness challenges that would inevitably be created by firing hundreds of workers at military R&D installations.

“We aren’t going to get ahead of the deadlines and speculate to possible outcomes,” Lt. Cmdr. Andrew DeGarmo told RCP in an email.

So far, the Navy has tried to focus on those complying with the vaccine order. Last week, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said during a panel at the Aspen Security Forum that the service branch has a 99.4% vaccination rate for active-duty personnel. That number does not account for the civilian and military workforce at China Lake and other Naval R&D facilities.

Some of the China Lake workers who are claiming religious exemptions are working with the First Liberty Institute, a legal organization that champions religious freedom. On Tuesday, it filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of at least 35 Navy SEALs, claiming that the U.S. military is infringing on their First Amendment freedoms and intimidating them into getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

Some SEALs as well as fighter pilots, most of whom are young and in top physical shape, are concerned about the risk of myocarditis, a very rare but potentially fatal inflammation of heart muscles that studies show younger males have experienced after receiving the vaccine. The different branches of the military all have their own vaccination deadlines. Nearly two months after the Pentagon began requiring troops to get the vaccine, the vast majority have done so, though top officials have denied nearly all religious exemptions.

Last week, the Air Force missed its Nov. 2 deadline to vaccinate all of its active-duty airmen because officials were still sorting through thousands of requests for exemptions. An estimated 12,000 Air Force personnel rejected orders to get fully vaccinated despite the Pentagon mandate. Service officials received nearly 5,000 requests for religious exemptions but have granted none of them, Defense One reported. They approved 1,886 waivers for medical reasons.

Vaccine holdouts in the military face rank reductions and, ultimately, separation from their service branches, along with potential courts-martial and dishonorable discharges for failing to follow orders under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Both military and civilian vaccine protesters would also likely lose their security clearances, which would harm their ability to attain future national security-related employment.

“Because a clearance is a privilege, not a right legally, [the military] can condition it on whatever they want to,” said Sean Bigley, a lawyer who specializes in security clearance retaliation cases. “The issue as it pertains to vaccines hasn’t really been tested, but I always tell my clients, you don’t want to be the test case unless you’re willing to jeopardize your career over this.”

Most vaccine resisters will have more time before it comes to that. Last week, a Washington, D.C., District Court judge issued a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction barring both civilian and active-duty military plaintiffs from being terminated after they sued the Biden administration over religious exemptions to the vaccines. Administration officials in late October also signaled that the vaccine deadlines would serve as the beginning of an education process focused on persuading those who are protesting the vaccine to reverse course.

“There will be escalation in disciplinary actions that will go through a process,” Steven Morani, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for sustainment, told a House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee hearing in late October. “Nobody is going to be fired on the 22nd. Education is critical in this space — to educate people about the safety of it and the risk of not having it.”

Jeff Zients, President Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, signaled an even softer sell before the federal government or the Pentagon would order the firing of thousands of civilians, contractors and troops.

“But even once we hit those deadlines, we expect federal agencies and contractors will follow their standard HR processes and that, for any of the probably relatively small percent of employees that are not in compliance, they’ll go through education, counseling, accommodations, and then enforcement,” Zients said at a White House media briefing in late October. “So, these processes play out across weeks, not days. And so, to be clear, we’re creating flexibility within the system. We’re offering people multiple opportunities to get vaccinated. There is not a cliff here.”

Legal experts representing SEALs and other defense clients say the military is unlikely to approve the religious exemption requests unless forced to. Vaccine advocates cite a long history of the U.S. government requiring vaccine mandates dating back to when George Washington required his soldiers to be inoculated against smallpox during the Revolutionary War. But mandates have also long been controversial, and the U.S. has a history of heavy-handed enforcement. In the 1890s and 1900s, squads of policemen would enter people’s home in the middle of the night to inject them with smallpox vaccines.

In the Navy especially, where thousands of sailors spend months at a time in ships’ extremely close quarters, COVID has proved a big challenge. The growing coronavirus crisis aboard an aircraft carrier in the early months of the pandemic last year prompted its captain, Brett Crozier, to plea for help in a letter that went public, leading to his firing. But a new study published in the The Lancet Infectious Diseases Journal found that those who have received the vaccine can spread the delta variant just as easily as unvaccinated individuals, leading to arguments that the shot only mitigates the impact of an infection but does not reduce spread.

Legal advocates supporting vaccine resisters argue the military is flouting constitutional protections that expressly protect religious exemptions.

“The government has a very, very high bar that it has to meet in order to deny a religious accommodation,” Mike Berry, a Marine reservist and attorney for the First Liberty Institute, recently told Fox News. “But we’ve been told from the Pentagon, from the very highest levels, that the DoD does not intend to approve any religious accommodation requests. And to my knowledge, and I’ve heard this from multiple sources, not a single religious accommodation has been approved at this point. And that’s insane. That can’t be the case, but yet that’s where we are.”

The two sides right now are locked in a game of chicken as the vaccination deadlines and penalties shift and appear to soften. Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a law professor and expert on vaccine mandates at the University of California, San Francisco, said the Biden administration’s conflicting messages on whether and when federal workers, military contractors and troops will be terminated is only prolonging the inevitable. Ultimately, she said, the vaccine holdouts shouldn’t count on the courts to widely back their resistance, though she predicted they could require the Pentagon to provide more transparency about their religious-exemption denials.

“In my experience, there’s a lot fewer people willing to resign when it comes down to the real deadline,” she told RCP. “When it comes down to allowing the military to set its vaccine policy, I don’t see the courts second-guessing them.”

President Biden’s vaccine mandate for private businesses with more than 100 workers is on hold while it faces legal challenges. A federal appeals court in Louisiana temporarily blocked the rule, saying it raises “grave statutory and constitutional issues.” Conversely, the Supreme Court, in late October upheld Maine’s vaccine mandate for health care workers.

With the legality of the mandates up in the air, Republicans in Congress are trying to limit punishments the Pentagon can impose. Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall proposed an amendment to the pending 2022 National Defense Authorization Act that would allow service members who refuse the COVID vaccine to receive an honorable discharge. Ten additional GOP senators have since backed the provision, including Kevin Cramer, Ted Cruz, Cindy Hyde-Smith, Ron Johnson, John Kennedy, James Lankford, Shelley Moore-Capito, Rick Scott, Tommy Tuberville and Roger Wicker.

“Think about the consequences for dishonorable discharge,” Marshall said, ticking off a list of several, including the loss of medical and education benefits, gun-ownership rights, and the ability to reenlist in a different military branch. “This is a big issue. It is a big deal.”

Lawmakers have yet to address the issue of Department of Defense civilian employees, as well as those in the military, losing their security-clearances if they continue to refuse the vaccine. They may not have to if the Pentagon determines it can’t risk firing so many highly skilled civilian employees and military at key weapons bases.

Thousands of civilian defense workers, as well as others in the military, who are refusing to get the shot are worried they could be forced out of their jobs by Christmas after receiving a notice that suspensions will begin Nov. 22.

“Well, ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ and ‘Merry Christmas,’” Goldberg remarked. “We’ve made careers out of this work. There are people who are going on more than 30 years of experience. We’re all patriots. We believe the United States is the best country and has the best military in the world. We take a lot of pride in being a part of that. To say at this point in time, after decades of service, if you don’t get this … drug injected into you, you can take a walk. It’s just astounding after everything we’ve done.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

[Editor's note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Politics.]

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