The most important role of any military leader is to do all that is possible to make sure those under his or her command are prepared for any hazard they may encounter in the course of carrying out their duties.
The United States Department of Defense has reasonably and responsibly determined that a major threat to all those who wear the uniform — as well as to the people they are sworn to protect — is the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. And it has rightly found that the best defense against that enemy is for every service member to receive a full battery of coronavirus vaccines or be discharged.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is thus duty-bound to ignore the clamor from many members of his own Republican Party and to uphold the vaccine mandate for all members of the Utah National Guard. To do otherwise would be to seriously undermine the readiness of the Guard and to make service much more hazardous to each individual than it would otherwise be.
Were Cox to knuckle under to the anti-vax campaign it would be the equivalent of sending soldiers into combat without weapons or helmets.
A petition from many legislators, party leaders and right-wing organizations claims that the DOD vaccine mandate is unfair and overly burdensome for members of the Guard because it does not allow for personal or religious exemptions. But there is no reason to grant any such exception, especially in view of the fact that vaccines are, as the governor has noted, the best defense we have against the pandemic. And as no religious organization has taken a stand against vaccination.
Public health in military organizations has always been crucial.
Having soldiers and sailors inoculated against infectious disease has been a routine part of military life at least as far back as the American Revolution, when Gen. George Washington commanded that all troops take the step to defend them — as individuals and as a fighting force — from smallpox. The standardization of vaccinations for soldiers during and since World War II has saved countless lives.
In many wars, including the American Civil War, more people died of camp-borne diseases than from battle. American Red Cross founder Clara Barton and Britain’s Florence Nightingale each undertook their public health reform missions after seeing the horrid conditions in military field hospitals. Walter Reed Army Medical Center and its successor, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, were named for a U.S. Army physician who confirmed that yellow fever, a deadly threat to soldiers serving in the tropics, was transmitted by mosquitoes.
Just because members of the Utah National Guard are not living in squalid Crimean War conditions doesn’t mean they need take no efforts to safeguard their collective health. Universal vaccination is good for each individual and protects their common ability to do their duty whenever and wherever they may be called to serve. And, given that the most likely mission for any Guard unit in any state right now will be to back up overwhelmed medical centers, knocking down the spread of the virus through those units is even more crucial.
It has been so long since our society has had to deal with a pandemic such as the one we are now facing that people seem to have forgotten what the threat is and how we have defeated it in the past. Deadly and crippling infectious diseases of decades past — polio, diphtheria, measles, tetanus, mumps — are virtually unheard of today for one reason and one reason only. Vaccines. Vaccines that practically everyone received because they were required for school, travel or military service.
There is absolutely no reason — other than adherence to various cockamamie far-right conspiracy theories — that COVID-19 vaccines should not be required not only for those in military service, but also for those working in medical facilities or working in or attending school. The next logical step would be a vaccine mandate for all of those flying on commercial airliners.
Republican governors in Iowa, Alaska, Wyoming, Mississippi and Nebraska have asked the Pentagon to reverse the vaccine mandate and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt failed in an attempt to get a federal court to block the order, a judge ruling vaccines are a common, and common-sense, requirement for military readiness.
This should be a relatively easy call for our governor. While he has not stood up to foolish legislative efforts to dial back anti-pandemic efforts, he has spoken out in favor of vaccines and against any state action to impair the ability of private businesses to require vaccines for their staff.
And Cox doesn’t have to do anything to enforce the federal order for members of the National Guard to receive their jabs. He just has to do his job and let the military commanders do theirs.