Soldiers and civilians must present vaccine cards to prove they have been fully vaccinated before entering dining and exercise facilities on at least one Army base in what some soldiers and spouses see as increasing pressure to get a vaccine that is not mandatory.
Beginning March 29, soldiers and civilians at Fort Bragg who presented a vaccine card were allowed to eat inside dining facilities on base, as well to visit one gym maskless. At least one other base, Fort Drum, is exploring a coronavirus wristband option as an alternative to the vaccine card.
The new rules come as the Biden administration has endorsed the idea of private companies developing some form of vaccine certification which Republicans lawmakers have argued is an unacceptable restriction on participating in normal life.
“It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said at a recent press conference.
Unit commanders recently received an email from the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division notifying them of the changes, which came down from the Fort Bragg commander. It said:
Tucker Gym will be open only to Paratroopers who are fully vaccinated plus 14 days. To enter, Paratroopers must present their [Common Access Card] card and a physical vaccination card to enter. …
All DFACs will open to 50% dine-in capacity and progress to 100% over time. … Again, Paratroopers must present their CAC card and a physical vaccination card to enter. …
This is a good thing. It’s an opportunity for us to show what back to normal looks like and it’s important that we get this right. Come back to me with your plan to get the word out to every Paratrooper in your formation before Monday morning.
The 82nd Airborne Division also notified the public of the changes in a Facebook post that said: “We’ve made great strides in our on-going war against #COVID19 [coronavirus]. We know that vaccinations and herd immunity are our best tools to return to normal. As vaccination numbers continue to rise across our formations, we can finally begin to fully re-open more of our facilities and enhance our ability to come together and take care of each other”:
We are excited to announce that after more than a year of take-out only, we can now expand our…
Army officials at Fort Bragg told Breitbart News that the new rules are being misinterpreted. They say the new rules take nothing away from soldiers and civilians, but rather, open things up to give soldiers more normalcy.
They said for the past year, on-base dining facilities have been take-out only for everyone, but with more soldiers getting vaccinated, they can now begin to allow a dine-in option for those vaccinated. Under this system, soldiers can eat together again.
In addition, for the past year, all 14 on-base gyms have been operating on a restricted basis, with cardio equipment shut down due to the potential of heavy breathing in an enclosed space. Now, with more soldiers getting vaccinated, the base is allowing for one gym to reopen cardio equipment for soldiers who are vaccinated. They also point out soldiers can still work out at the 13 other gyms with restrictions or at their company’s gym or outside.
Army Col. Joe Buccino, spokesman for XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg Commander Michael “Erik” Kurilla, said in a statement:
This is about reopening post so we can resume pre-covid normalcy and build readiness. This is about readiness. We can’t stay locked down forever and reopening the DFACs allows our soldiers to interact with one another again. Reopening the gyms to vaccinated soldiers allows us to start building readiness. Nothing has changed for soldiers that are not vaccinated (they can still use the DFAC for grab and go dining and they can use any of the 13 other gyms).
Still, soldiers and family members say they feel pressured to get the vaccine, and point to other alleged ways they are feeling pressured.
One source said soldiers with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division are not being allowed to deploy or attend upcoming training unless they receive the vaccine and unvaccinated soldiers are being transferred to other companies where they will not deploy, or assigned to administrative duties — which is, in many cases, considered a form of punishment.
Another source said soldiers at Fort Bliss in Texas are being told they cannot take pre-deployment leave if they are not vaccinated, and that some doctors and physician’s assistants at Fort Bragg are telling soldiers to get vaccinated and lie to their spouses, and keep it “between them and the Army.” “Some spouses worried about fertility/conception issues not wanting their soldiers to get shots,” said the second source.
A third source said soldiers traveling on temporary duty (TDY) have to quarantine before their assignment if they have not been vaccinated — which could mean additional time away from family before they start their assignment or inconvenience for family members needing to quarantine.
A March 17 memorandum from Fort Drum and 10th Division Commander Maj. Gen. Brian J. Mennes, obtained and published by Army veteran Pam Long, outlined different restrictions for those vaccinated and unvaccinated. The memo also noted that a division-approved “COVID wristband” is authorized for wear by vaccinated service members with their uniforms.
Long, a West Point graduate and Army Medical Service Corps veteran, criticized the restrictions in a March 30 op-ed piece:
Fully vaccinated service members do not have ‘restriction of movement’ or quarantine after travel and return to post. Unvaccinated must quarantine for 10 days and can test out after seven days of quarantine. ‘Family members must be able to quarantine with the service member (i.e. spouse cannot go to work, children cannot go to school).’
Vaccinated service members only require an O-3 (captain or company commander) to approve their leave, while unvaccinated must request leave from a higher-ranking O-5 (lieutenant colonel or battalion commander) with an additional procedural step of submitting an Exception to Policy (ETP). …
Vaccinated service members may meet with or host any non-local visitor from outside the five states contiguous to New York … . Unvaccinated service members must obtain approval from an O-5 in their chain of command, and then enter a 10-day quarantine to meet with or reside with any non-local visitor.
Vaccinated service members have no limits on gatherings at a private residence. Unvaccinated have a limit of 12 guests at indoor gatherings, and 15 guests at outdoor gatherings. ETPs may be granted for larger on-post public social gatherings by an O-5 commander, but If all personnel attending the gathering are vaccinated no ETP is required.
Army spokesman for 10th Mountain Division Lt. Col. Kamil Sztalkoper said in response to the article as well as the allegations:
We’re excited that we’ve vaccinated a sufficient portion of our population that we can now loosen some restrictions and begin to restore a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy for our Soldiers and Families. For us, this is about readiness; reopening venues and allowing more travel in concert with CDC guidelines allows our Soldiers interpersonal engagement that is critical to the health of our troops and Families. We’re obligated to abide by CDC guidelines, so restrictions for our unvaccinated population remain in place. We are exploring a wristband option which is basically a substitute for the vaccine card.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told Breitbart News on Tuesday he was personally not aware of soldiers being asked to show vaccine cards before entering facilities, but said base policies could be different.
“This is the first I’ve heard of this. And so, I can assure there’s no DOD [Department of Defense] wide policy governing that. I would point you to the individual installation commanders to speak to their policies,” he added.
Kirby also said there is currently no guidance from the Department restricting service members who haven’t received their coronavirus vaccinations from deploying.
However, he said those concerned should speak with their physicians about “what’s the right decision for them and for their health, and for the health of their families and, quite frankly, for the health of their teammates.”
According to defense officials in February, about one-third of service members are declining to take the vaccine. So far, only about 30 percent of the active duty, reserve, and National Guard force have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Defense Health Agency Director Lt. Gen. Ron Place told reporters on March 26.