A lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Air Force (USAF) says morale for military personnel and contractors has been hard-hit by President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates, which require that everyone employed by the federal government get vaccinated against the virus or lose their job.
Lt. Col. Adam Conrad, who asked that his name be changed to protect his identity, painted a grim picture of the state of USAF personnel, who have faced persistent fears of losing their jobs if they don't accept the relatively untested COVID-19 vaccines.
"I've never seen morale so low," he told The Epoch Times.
Conrad, like many service members across the military, faces the risk of losing his job if he doesn't take the vaccine. While he has submitted an exemption request, Conrad isn't optimistic that it will be granted, despite his relatively high rank in the service.
“I have a sincerely held religious belief against the [COVID-19] vaccine due to how it’s created,” Conrad said, citing the use of fetal cells from aborted infants during the development process of the vaccine. “I started questioning the COVID vaccines due to the novelty of the mRNA technology. While researching, I came to have a sincerely held religious belief due to my anti-abortion stance, as well as the low risk that COVID poses to me.”
Based on reports received from those around him who have taken the vaccines, Conrad said the adverse effects from the vaccines likely pose more risk to him than the virus does.
“The ends couldn’t justify the means by any stretch,” he said.
Conrad noted that he filed an exemption request at the end of August 2021, but has received no answer. He said that so far, all of the exemption requests returned from his higher command have been denied.
To qualify for an exemption request, service members must first be evaluated by military chaplains.
“The military chaplain corps is trained to accommodate all religious beliefs,” Conrad said.
During their evaluation, servicemembers discuss their beliefs with the chaplain—in this case, explaining why they hold serious moral qualms against the COVID-19 vaccines. If the chaplain is satisfied, he can give a recommendation that a request be accepted.
After his own evaluation by a chaplain, Conrad was judged to be sincere in his opposition to the vaccine.
Aside from religious or moral objections, Conrad said the USAF considers four key factors in deciding whether to grant an exemption: military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, and public health and safety.
“In other words, fulfilling a request should have no adverse effect on accomplishing the mission,” he said.
But Conrad said upper-level command has been “intellectually dishonest” in its interpretation of these four considerations and in its reasons for refusing a religious accommodation request.
“I have a real problem with the logic for denial that some of the denials coming back use,” he said.
“'Military readiness' forms a strong basis for these denials. Excuses include things like being on patrol or being in close quarters with others—they imply that you can’t do your job without the vaccine. But people did these things since the beginning of the pandemic, well before the vaccine.”
David Younts, an attorney who's representing around 50 military clients seeking exemption requests, agreed with Conrad's assessment and said the reasons for denial have been "arbitrary and capricious."
"My clients have repeatedly experienced and we have seen intellectual dishonesty and blatant religious discrimination from Department of Defense [DOD] leadership," Younts told The Epoch Times.
In fact, Younts said, in the Navy, the decision was made to deny practically all accommodation requests before they were even received, according to Younts.
"One of my clients helped exposed the Navy's predetermined plan to deny all religious accommodation requests before they were even submitted," he said. "I have been provided multiple examples of template denials where the wrong information was put into the boilerplate denial that did not even match my client's information or duty position.
"From the beginning of the mandate, many of my clients have been repeatedly told that their accommodation request would be denied even before it was submitted.
"For what appear to be clear political reasons, the DOD has refused to even consider natural immunity as a factor in my client's cases."
If their requests are denied, service members can go all the way up to the surgeon general to dispute the rejection, Conrad said.
However, he said the time frame to make the appeal is “artificially short” and “purposefully limits” the ability of service members to formulate an argument informed by legal, medical, and professional guides as to why their request should be accepted.
“The U.S. Air Force has decided to give members only a five-day calendar window to construct, research, write, and submit a full appeal package,” but the USAF is under no such time constraint, Conrad said. “[The USAF] gets as long as it wants to research its reasons for denial.”
Because of this, Conrad said service members have been advised to begin work on their appeal before they even receive the answer to their original request.
Conrad said the five-day window is “very wonky and way too short for a hail mary attempt to save your career.”
The time frame is particularly short in comparison to other procedures in the USAF.
Conrad said service members have three days to sign a "letter of counseling," which is a disciplinary form given to members for minor infractions. He also noted that there are examples from across the Pentagon of service members being given a much longer time frame to form an appeal, but that the secretary of the Air Force didn't grant that authority to commanders in his December 2021 memo outlining the five-day limit.
The effects that the mandates have had on morale have been pronounced, according to Conrad.
“I’ve never seen morale so low—and it’s not among the unvaccinated,” he said.
Conrad said many of the airmen who submitted to the vaccine have faced significant adverse effects. Recently, as the Biden administration has increasingly pushed for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, service members are nervous that they’ll be forced to accept another vaccine.
“There’s been a lot of angst about whether they’re going to require the booster,” he said.
Morale has also plummeted among civilian government workers and contractors. Under Biden’s September 2021 vaccine mandates, federal contractors were subject to the same vaccination requirements as service members.
In general, “morale is not good,” Conrad said.
He said that among USAF service members, higher-ranking officers are more likely to seek religious accommodations than lower-ranking airmen.
Conrad said those seeking religious or moral exemptions have faced scrutiny and ostracism from others in the service.
“If you’re resisting this vaccine, some commanders say, 'You’re not a good leader' or 'You don’t care about the community' or 'You don’t understand science' or 'You're anti-science.'”
Under this pressure, many service members have simply accepted the vaccine because they don’t want to be seen as “the person fighting the system,” Conrad said.
Younts said his clients have faced similar ostracism and argued that this is an abrogation of the constitutional rights of military service members.
"I have multiple clients that have been fired from leadership positions and isolated because of their religious faith," Younts said. "I believe that the arbitrary and capricious denials of the accommodation requests are a violation of the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Fifth Amendment due process, and 14th Amendment equal protection.
"My clients fear this is an attempt to purge conservative evangelicals and orthodox Catholics from the military because of their religious beliefs. Even prior to the official mandate, my clients have faced the threat of criminal prosecution and been repeatedly berated by their leadership.
"I have clients who were not allowed to take holiday leave to see their families, attend church services, were forced to work from a car in a parking lot, and even restricted to base or to a ship because they were not vaccinated."
Conrad said that amid the long odds of the situation, he'll keep fighting for an exemption for as long as he can. While he has served in the Air Force for many years and wishes to remain in the service, he said he'll likely retire if his request is denied and he has run through all avenues of appeal.
“I realize I might be on my last legs here,” Conrad said. “Fighting a stupid vaccine isn’t how I wanted to go out.
“I don’t think it serves anyone for me to put in retirement when I wasn’t planning on it.”
He noted that he's currently scheduled for a competitively selected assignment in the near future.
In December 2021, the Senate approved legislation barring the Pentagon from dishonorably discharging those who refuse to take the vaccine. A dishonorable discharge, which is roughly equivalent to a civilian felony conviction, has consequences that will follow former service members for their entire lives.
However, even though service members can't be dishonorably discharged for refusing the vaccine, many—ranging in rank from officers to enlisted personnel—continue to face the threat of losing their jobs over the mandates. For many long-serving members of the military, losing their jobs puts them at risk of losing benefits that they've accrued for years.