COVID-19 Vaccines Are Voluntary In The Military. Fort Bragg Leaders Are Hoping More Soldiers Get Them.
Base leaders say fewer than half of the soldiers who qualify for the vaccine have decided to get it. The Army has rolled out a campaign to persuade them.
Many members of the Armed Forces are eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine. But fewer than half the troops in some units have agreed to get vaccinated, and the Pentagon finds itself waging a battle against misinformation and vaccine hesitancy.
Military leaders say they need troops ready to fight, not getting sick, having their training restricted or cycling in and out of quarantines. Service members can’t be ordered to take vaccines that don’t have full FDA approval unless the President allows it, so the Pentagon has to persuade them.
Military leaders are trying hard to get the attention of troops like PFC Rodolfo Amaya. One day recently, he got in line to get vaccinated inside a Fort Bragg recreation center. But only after overcoming his reluctance - based on one of the most common reasons troops cite.
“When it first came out, I was skeptical,” he said. “It’s a new vaccine. No one really knows how it’s going to affect us in the later future."
Just ahead of him in line was Spc. Emily Gaiser who had been hesitant for the same reason. She said some of her female friends are still saying no.
“Most of the people who are not getting it right now are the ones who are having kids right now,” she said. “They're kind of nervous for the fact that they have newborns in their house, and they don't want to risk anything at the moment.”
The CDC says the vaccines are not likely to pose a risk for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Bragg officials said in early March the percentage of soldiers agreeing to get vaccinated was under 50% for the base. It’s especially low among younger soldiers, who are getting much of their inaccurate information from social media.
So the Army has begun treating that misinformation and disinformation as a battlefield foe.
“We're constantly trying to work out what the myth of the day is, and then we research that, we find the facts behind it,” said Lieutenant Colonel Owen Price, the advisor on COVID-19 to the 18th Airborne Corps.
The Bragg-headquartered 18th Airborne Corps, which comprises nearly a fifth of the Army, has started an aggressive social media campaign. It’s also having success using medics to talk with soldiers in their units one on one, as peers who also happen to have medical expertise.
At least one common reason for not getting vaccinated can’t be blamed on the Internet. Some troops are saying no simply because they can.
“Choice is a fairly rare commodity in their lives,” Price said. “They get told when to eat, what to wear, where they can go, what they can and can't do so much that when they’re given a choice to do something, then some percentage of population will say no, just because they have that choice.”
Price and his counterparts across the Army share information about successful tactics. He said in recent weeks Fort Bragg has seen at least modest gains in the number of troops willing to get vaccinated, probably in part because of the education efforts.
There's also been a kind of snowball effect.
“I think a lot of it is seeing the more people that get vaccinated, and that they see that they did not have any ill effects,” Price said. “To me, that's been huge.”
That’s a big reason PFC Amaya and Spc. Gaiser were in that line waiting for a shot of Pfizer vaccine.
“I had a lot of family members and other soldiers who took the shot and they said they felt fine afterwards," Amaya said. “So they said just go ahead and get the shot. So that was pretty much my influence for me coming here.”
Gaiser was likewise influenced by seeing other soldiers get the vaccine. And someone else, too.
“I'm getting it because my grandma's getting it, and I kind of want to be able to see her later on," she said. "It is kind of nerve-racking to get it, but if my grandma can get it, so can I."
Now the military just has to convince more troops to be like Gaiser’s grandmother.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.