The U.S. military is used to taking shots, but when it comes to the coronavirus vaccine, many are hesitating.
Courtney Waltbillig lives at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, with her husband who is an Army Captain in the 1-1 Cavalry. A dental hygienist, this mother of two is young, healthy and like many military families was hesitant at first to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
"I know a lot of my friends and coworkers were like, I'm not gonna put that into my body, I don't know what's in it," Waltbillig said in an interview with Fox News.
Democratic lawmakers led by Rep. Jimmy Panetta of California, the son of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, have written a letter demanding President Biden order the military vaccinated before 600,000 troops and their families begin to move this summer to new bases in the U.S. and abroad, potentially becoming a vector to spread the virus.
President Trump has urged all Americans to get the vaccine, describing it as "safe" and "something that works." He told Fox News back in March, "I would recommend it to a lot of people that don't want to get it, and a lot of those people voted for me, frankly."
Some Republicans have balked at a government mandate. Others, like Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, see it as a military readiness issue. Troops can’t afford the downtime if they aren’t vaccinated and get sick, the same reason Waltbillig relented and got her COVID shot, after learning the mRNA research behind Pfizer and Moderna's vaccines had been in development for 10 years. And Johnson and Johnson used the same technology used in the flu vaccine.
"I don't want to have to worry about being able to contact trace. Every time someone goes and has COVID, they have to be out for two weeks," Waltbillig explained.
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A survey conducted by Blue Star Families in December showed one in 3 military family respondents don't view COVID as a threat, 3 in 5 active-duty personnel are not planning to get the vaccine and 2 out of 3 military family respondents don't trust the vaccine and are concerned about its safety.
"They were concerned that maybe the vaccine was rushed, they were concerned about side effects," said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Bluestar Families. "There was a lot of misunderstanding about how quickly it took to develop this vaccine because really, the scientists have been working on it for 10 years."
The military so far has made the vaccine optional since the FDA has only given Emergency Use Authorization to stop the pandemic.
A new survey of military families conducted with COVID Collaborative, a public service campaign, is expected soon.
Former Navy SEAL Commander Mike Hayes got the Pfizer vaccine but says it should remain a person's choice. "If we force people to opt in, that will not have as positive an effect on the other 324 million Americans that aren't in the Department of Defense," said Hayes, author of "Never Enough, a book about leadership. "And ultimately what it's about is influence, positivity and not forcing the issue."
Vaccine skeptics like Staff Sgt. Keara Holbrook, who served in Afghanistan and is now based at Ft Bragg, North Carolina, worried the vaccine would make her infertile. But she came around and got vaccinated.
"I’ve been talking to people who’ve got the vaccine and they’re pregnant now," Holbrook told Fox News. "I’ve talked to people who’ve taken the vaccine, and they’re breastfeeding and they broke down like the ingredients and how it has nothing to do with that so I’m comfortable with that now."
"We just have to really get off of social media and think for ourselves and actually do the research," Holbrook added.
Staff Sgt. Anthony Johnson of the 82nd Airborne was another vaccine skeptic but decided to get the vaccine when his commanding officer got his.
"I asked him, ‘Sir, why do you want to volunteer to get it?' And he said, ’You know, I want to do my part if I can if this can help get us back to normal,’ and that really resonated with me."
Staff Sgt. Johnson received the Pfizer shot and the only side effect, he said, was a sore arm. "Immediately after getting my shot and putting my top back on and going outside, I felt somewhat invincible," Johnson said. "I think it’s only a matter of time before service members feel compelled to a sense of duty and putting the mission first. Me, personally I just looked at it like another mission."
Former SEAL Team 2 Commander Mike Hayes says vaccine skeptics should be like SEALs who are taught to think of "Team, Teammate and then self."
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"We have an opportunity to lead the nation," says Hayes. "We need to see this virus as a national security threat just as much as any sort of foreign nation coming to attack us on our soil."
Fort Bragg has already seen a turnaround in vaccine hesitancy since February, according to U.S. military officials - with 60 percent of those serving there willing to take the vaccine compared to 37 percent 3 months ago.