The military's recruitment struggle is being further damaged by the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, a Marine Corps general said Saturday.
Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger defended the vaccine mandate as necessary to keep the force healthy, but also said that the requirement has created recruiting problems in some areas of the country where there is a high rate of vaccine misinformation, according to Military.com.
"Where it is having an impact for sure is on recruiting, where in parts of the country there's still myths and misbeliefs about the back story behind it," Berger said during a panel at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California.
In comments to reporters later Saturday, Berger added that the mandate has especially frustrated efforts to recruit in the South.
"There was not accurate information out early on and it was very politicized and people make decisions and they still have those same beliefs," he said. "That's hard to work your way past, really hard to work."
"Small areas, big factor," he added when asked how much the mandate has contributed to the recruiting problem. "You talk to me in the cafeteria, and one of my first questions is, 'Do I have to get that vaccine?' And you go, 'Yeah, you do.' 'OK, I'll talk to you later.' It's that fast."
The military has run into a recruiting crisis in the past year, fueled by a smaller contingent of Americans who are qualified to serve and a larger number who are uninterested in serving.
Pointing primarily to obesity and minor legal violations, such as marijuana use, one Pentagon study found that just 23% of young Americans would be eligible to put on an armed services uniform.
While the Marines hit their recruiting goal in fiscal year 2022, the service branch had to dip into a pool of delayed entry applicants to do so, which means it will be more difficult to hit the goal in the future.
Republicans have argued that the vaccine mandate is worsening the recruiting crisis by booting service members at a time when the military needs to retain as many able-bodied soldiers as it can.
According to the Marine Corps' monthly COVID-19 update, approximately 96% of active-duty Marines are fully vaccinated. More than 3,700 have been separated from the service, however, over vaccine refusal.
Many of the troops who have declined the COVID-19 vaccine have asked for religious exemptions to the mandate, frequently citing concerns about the use of aborted fetal tissue in vaccine development and production.
According to Military.com, Moderna and Pfizer used fetal cell lines from a fetus aborted in the 1970s to test vaccine efficacy but did not use the tissue in production. Johnson & Johnson used fetal cell lines in vaccine production.
Courts have prohibited some of the military service branches from taking action against troops who have requested religious exemptions, while lawsuits against the mandate play out.
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