We sat down with Captain Mickey Shelton of the Tennessee National Guard to get an honest look at the struggles unvaccinated Guard members continue to face. It may surprise Tennesseans to find out that the COVID vaccination is not only still mandated for National Guard members, but is also required for the 500 volunteers in the Tennessee State Guard, despite it being a completely state-funded, state-directed, unpaid force.
Though President Biden declared that the “pandemic [was] over” during a September interview with 60 Minutes, the military still hasn’t retracted their vaccine mandate. During our interview, Shelton paints a clear picture of what it’s been like for Guard members: the hardships suffered by the unvaccinated and those left with pending exemptions, the vaccination regret among soldiers, and the appalling dismissal of Guard members who have come forward with Covid-related injury concerns; revealing the grim underbelly of the process to which service members have been subjected and the abysmal attempt the Department of Defense has taken to brush it under the rug.
First and foremost, he tells us, soldiers who refused the vaccination haven’t been paid since July 1st. “They're not paid anymore and can't show up to drill and are losing benefits and retirement points,” he says. But he also reveals that even Guard members with pending exemptions, who are still allowed to drill, are treated differently: “If you're holding a religious exemption and it's not been adjudicated, you're not able to do certain things like participate in training events, attend schools for your military occupational specialty, or deploy because you haven't gotten vaccinated.”
A watchdog report that surfaced towards the end of September revealed that rushed COVID vaccine exemption denials have left the Department of Defense (DoD) in a compromising position. In a memo sent by Sean O’ Donnell, the Pentagon’s inspector general, to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on June 2 of this year, O’Donnell expressed concerns regarding the expediency in which exemption denials were adjudicated. The timeline, indicated in the memo that allotted for the individual assessment of each exception, revealed that it was only possible for the department to have devoted a few minutes to review each exemption request. This discovery suggested an unacceptable trend of general assessment where the department expedited exemption denials leaving the DoD well, defenseless—at least in court.
Multiple lawsuits filed regarding denied exemptions have slowly been working their way through the courts—including a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of about 1,200 service members denied religious exemptions and a plethora of lawsuits filed regarding denied medical exemptions. The growing list of successful lawsuits filed against the DoD, coupled with the memo exposed by the watchdog report, add to suspicions Shelton and his fellow Guard members have garnered relating to recent extensions on exemptions they have detected. “It looks as if they know they're getting in trouble,” says Shelton.
Is the DoD retroactively covering their tracks? Shelton believes so. “I've corroborated with some of my colleagues. They've shown me, personally, that their religious exemptions have been getting extended temporarily.” These inexplicable extensions, paired with a tight-lipped chain of command, add to the confusion as soldiers remain suspended in limbo. “We can’t get answers”, says Shelton. It all seems a bit fishy; something must be behind this sudden change of heart: “It looks as though they're giving random extension dates on different exemptions. One soldier may have a year extension, one may have nine months. It looks like they’re trying to cover themselves now so that it doesn't look like they were violating anything.” It may seem conspiratorial, but the lack of notifications regarding updated exemption extensions and the varying timelines give the impression that the DoD is walking back its overzealous, mass-denial protocol.
SOLDIERS LOSING THEIR BENEFITS
This perpetual state of uncertainty has left soldiers who have held onto the hope of reinstatement at their wit’s end. As Shelton relays multiple accounts of Guard members struggling with the repercussions of seeking an exemption for or refusing vaccination, you can hear the anguish in his voice, the frustration. It isn’t right for his fellow soldiers to be left behind as they wait for the courts to slowly untangle this mess. “A field grade officer—higher ranking who had 19 years in—he can't pass his education benefits down to his own kids now,” he says. ”Now, he can't use those benefits for his kids. The benefits that he had earned and that he was promised.”
SOLDIERS REGRETTING GETTING VACCINATED
As Shelton recounts untold story after untold story, the pitfalls faced by unvaccinated Guard members begin to pale in comparison to the regret felt by those soldiers who did decide to get vaccinated: “I couldn't tell you how many people, including soldiers I know in my unit, that wish they hadn't got the vaccine because they have issues now.”
Many military members have kept quiet in order to salvage what’s left of their careers, but the flat-out dismissal of Guard members who have come forward with vaccine injury concerns is even more disturbing: “Some just don't talk about it, but I know some have tried to talk about their issues at the VA or to medical and they decline them.” According to Shelton, soldiers coming forward with post-vaccine complications are being told that their debilitating symptoms are the result of pre-existing conditions. He recounts a story of one Guard member who now wears a heart monitor after experiencing issues with the first dose: “They pretty much pressured her into getting the second dose, and she did. She may have to wear that for the rest of her life, and who knows the long-term effects of this stuff.”
Others have experienced myocarditis, pericarditis, infertility, hormonal issues, Bell’s palsy, sleep issues, joint pain, blood clots, and shortness of breath—just to name a few complications Shelton has heard accounts of or witnessed first-hand—none of which can be claimed as a disability. “I think the leading cause of death in the military now is ‘unknown,’” he quips. But being a walking case study isn’t the only chink in the armor of our nation’s military.
EFFECTS ON MILITARY READINESS, MORALE, AND RECRUITMENT
“The inaccuracy of military readiness numbers is concerning,” says Shelton, who proceeds to explain how military vaccination numbers are reported misleadingly. Data accounting for vaccinated military members will sometimes include partial vaccination, which paints an inaccurate picture of how many members are eligible for duty in accordance with current policies. Tennessee isn’t exempt from this: “The number of vaccinated service members that the Governor put out—which was 93 percent when he made his statement—from the documents that I have seen, do not match the Governor’s number.”
To make matters worse, the military has executed mass firings and forced a number of members into retirement. This, on top of the conflation of data discussed above. Unsurprisingly, morale and recruitment appear to be emerging issues. “We have a recruitment problem as is. I think the Army alone only met around 50 percent of their recruitment goal for this past year. That's alarming because they're also kicking out about sixty-thousand of our National Guard soldiers across the country,” Shelton explains. Seeing as his account only represents the data for the National Guard and reserves, this is a fractional representation of a much larger problem.
TENNESSEE POLITICIANS, TAKE ACTION!
While Shelton finds the effects of the DoD’s policies devastating on a national scale, his main focus is capturing the attention of Tennessee officials; it’s already taken a promising step in the right direction. On October 18, 2022, the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners signed a resolution urging the Governor of Tennessee to take action in order “to mitigate the arbitrary and unjustified action of the Biden Administration to require Covid-19 vaccinations of Tennessee Guardsmen as a condition of service to our great state and our nation.” The introduction of the resolution is an initiative Shelton has helped coordinate in county commissions across the state in an effort to take action against the federal overreach which destroyed the lives of his brothers and sisters in arms.
In addition to all of the above, Shelton hopes Tennessee legislators and government officials will see fit to take care of his comrades left behind. Things bode well for his goal: yesterday, a glimmer of hope surfaced in a ruling that came out of New York, NY which will both require the government to reinstate municipal employees fired for not getting vaccinated against COVID and issue them back pay. Shelton hopes the same can be done for the Tennessee National Guard. Though back pay, reinstatement, and honoring the benefits lost in the last few months won’t make up for the damage done to his colleagues, Shelton thinks it would be a good place to start.
All opinions expressed by Captain Mickey Shelton are his own. His opinions do not represent the DoD, U.S. Army or the Tennessee Army National Guard.