Fact Check: Has the U.S. Military Ever Mandated Vaccines?

Talk around mandates to enforce COVID-19 vaccines upon military personnel and other individuals is proving controversial.

The Claim

Some critics of mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for military personnel question the appropriateness and even legality of such an order. But proponents claim that this is not the first time it has been done, citing several similar examples from the past.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) tweeted: "When I served on active duty, we were ordered to get the Anthrax vaccine. Did I like it? No. Did I follow the vaccination order? Of course. It's a lawful order.

"The military is at the tip of the spear and we need our troops protected against threats that can sicken or kill them."

His tweet came in response to another from former U.S. national security advisor John Bolton, who referenced George Washington ordering troops to be inoculated against smallpox during the Revolutionary War.

Bolton wrote: "Ordering our military take the COVID vaccine has deep and honorable precedents.

"With the Continental Army constantly threatened by smallpox, Washington ordered all soldiers to be inoculated. If it was good enough for George Washington, it's good enough for me."

Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a memo detailing proposed COVID vaccine rules reported by CNN and The Wall Street Journal, said: "Mandating vaccines in the military is not new.

"Since the first days of basic training and throughout our service, we've received multiple vaccines. We have proven processes with trusted and skilled medical professionals."

The Facts

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said he will seek the president's approval to "make the vaccines mandatory no later than mid-September, or immediately upon" approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) whichever comes first, the Associated Press reports.

The FDA is yet to approve a vaccine, and without this Austin would require a waiver from President Joe Biden to impose the mandate. Biden has indicated he would support such a requirement.

As Lieu pointed out, troops heading to "high risk" areas were previously ordered to receive the Anthrax Vaccine Adsorbed (AVA) vaccine.

According to a page on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) site: "In 1998, the Department of Defense (DoD) began the Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program (AVIP), a mandatory anthrax vaccination program to protect US forces assigned to areas deemed to be at high risk for weaponized B. anthracis attack."

The page also noted that at that time "some members of the armed forces expressed concern that the vaccine could have health effects."

Due to this, in 1999 Congress directed the CDC to launch the Anthrax Vaccine Research Program (AVRP) to study its safety.

The mandatory vaccine program faced legal challenges. In 2003, a federal judge ruled that the military could not administer a vaccine that had not been fully licensed without consent, the Associated Press reports.

However, once the vaccine received FDA approval the program began again. It was stopped once more after the judge ruled the FDA had not followed procedures, though restarted once further approvals were issued.

Some left military service or were court-martialed over refusal to take the vaccine, AirForceTimes reports.

Bolton's claim, which has also been posted in the form of a meme by other people online, also holds water.

According to The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, Washington "implemented the first mass immunization policy in American history."

Washington issued an order to have all troops inoculated against smallpox in a letter to President John Hancock on February 5, 1777.

While at that point a smallpox vaccine was not available, inoculation was ordered through a method which was, named variolation.

Britannica describes this as an "obsolete method of immunizing patients against smallpox by infecting them with substance from the pustules of patients with a mild form of the disease."

According to Health.mil, the official site of the Military Health System, as of today there are still some circumstances in which a smallpox vaccination is mandatory for military personnel.

"Smallpox vaccination is currently required for uniformed personnel deploying or assigned to the Korean Peninsula for 15 or more consecutive days," the website states.

"It is also mandatory for certain designated emergency-essential personnel and contractors, uniformed personnel assigned to special units, and comparable U.S. government civilian employees. However, requirements may change based on threat."

Military personnel are also required to obtain an influenza immunization or exemption for this each year.

According to Health.mil, there are two main types of exemptions for vaccinations. These are medical and administrative.

Medical must be validated by a healthcare professional and can include issues such as conditions that cause immune suppression or having previously suffered severe reactions after a vaccine.

Administrative can cover religious reasons or potentially if someone is retiring within 180 days.

Other vaccinations can be required based on where someone is deployed. For example, in certain areas vaccinations against chickenpox, hepatitis A, typhoid, yellow fever, and rabies are required.

The Ruling

Fact Check - True

True.

FACT CHECK BY NEWSWEEK

Yes, military personnel have faced vaccine mandates previously.

The COVID-19 vaccine would not be the first for members of the military to be ordered to take.

Newsweek has contacted the Department of Defense for comment.

soldiers assisting with vaccines
U.S. Army soldiers from the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, prepare Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate people at the Miami Dade College North Campus on March 09, 2021 in North Miami, Florida. The soldiers deployed to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency at the state-run, federally-supported COVID-19 Community Vaccination Center. Joe Raedle/Getty Images