Rep. Steven Johnson (left) and Sen. Tom Barrett (center) at a joint committee hearing, Dec. 7, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins
Around 20 anonymous letters from supposed Michigan National Guard members kicked off a joint legislative committee hearing in Lansing Tuesday evening, with discussion mostly centered around alleged “coercion” in the ranks to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, along with some confusion about emails and vaccine names.
Leading the joint hearing were state Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville), chair of the Senate Appropriations Military and Veterans Affairs/State Police Subcommittee, and state Rep. Steven Johnson (R-Wayland), House Oversight Committee chair.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced in August that all service members will be required to receive COVID-19 vaccines to ensure “a healthy and ready force.”
Michigan is currently in its worst surge yet of the virus, with 1,353,156 people testing positive for COVID-19 and 24,494 dying from the virus. Hospitalizations have broken records and there has been an additional 16,590 cases and 127 deaths since Friday, the last day the state reported data.
Barrett, an Iraq War veteran and Michigan National Guard member, announced in November that he is leaving the Army and running for Congress to “stand up to [President Joe] Biden” in protest of the vaccine mandates.
Michigan’s new congressional map has yet to be finalized, but Barrett could potentially be running against U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), a former CIA and Department of Defense official.
Michigan National Guard soldiers have until Dec. 15 to receive their COVID-19 vaccine, which is just one of many other vaccinations guard members are required to receive including polio, influenza, Measles-Mumps-Rubella, hepatitis A and chickenpox. If they wish to not receive a vaccine, there is a waiver request process available.
But “vaccine compliance” is required in order to be considered for all promotions and appointments to leadership and to attend military school, even if a member has an exemption pending.
After a monthslong COVID-19 surge that nearly tripled deaths from the virus among service members, that death toll among American service members has been staunched as more troopers receive vaccines.
Barrett said there is no legislative end to his efforts, but he merely wants to ensure that soldiers receive a fair due process review of their waiver requests and are not coerced along the way. He said he became concerned that coercive and unfair practices were happening in the ranks when he received about 20 letters he says came from Michigan National Guard members.
Upon questioning from state Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.), Barrett acknowledged that all of the letters were sent in anonymously.
U.S. Army Capt. Ryan Kimball appeared in person as a civilian to testify against the vaccine mandate and was the only service member with complaints who was named.
State Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), who is a lieutenant in the Army Reserves and paratrooper, questioned Kimball about his oath of office and duty as a service member.
“As a reservist, as someone who has to deal with medical readiness, it is a hugely important thing in my command, which I imagine is the same in yours,” Hollier said. He added that the oath of office taken by members is to follow lawful orders, and Austin has made it “abundantly clear” that all soldiers should be vaccinated.
Kimball and Republican lawmakers pushed back, with some questioning whether it was in fact a lawful order and contending that their constitutional freedoms should be held above all else.
“As an officer of the United States military, my oath is to support and defend the Constitution. I believe that recent orders given to the Michigan National Guard are unconstitutional and violate soldiers’ constitutional freedom of religious rights,” Kimball said.
As a result of this practice of what Kimball calls “force-vaccinating,” he said soldiers’ rights have been “flagrantly violated.”
“It may not be a harm that you recognize that you recognize, that a soldier went out and got vaccinated, feeling coerced into doing it while they had a religious waiver pending, but it is a irreversible thing that happened to that soldier that overrided their free consent to be able to do that,” Barrett said.
Barrett declined to answer a question from the Advance about whether he has gotten Army waivers for other vaccines. He contracted COVID-19 in August 2020 and is not vaccinated against the virus, which has developed several variants since then including the more infectious delta and omicron variants.
Out of the 7,202 members of Michigan’s Army National Guard, 60% have been vaccinated against COVID-19. On the Air National Guard side, 88% of the 2,546 service members have been inoculated.
Combining the two branches comes out to a 68% vaccination rate for the Michigan National Guard overall.
Out of 354 total exemption applications in the Army, 333 have been for religious reasons and none have been granted yet. Out of 149 total in Air, 102 are religious. The rest of the applications are for medical reasons.
Also in focus at the hearing was an email sent out to 67 unvaccinated AGR on Wednesday, Nov. 17 outlining certain prescriptive actions that would occur if the service members were not vaccinated by Dec. 15.
A clarifying follow-up email was sent the following Saturday noting that they are still awaiting guidance on those prescriptive actions and correcting the clerical error.
Republican lawmakers contended the email led to unvaccinated members feeling forced to get vaccinated before they were fully aware of their options.
“It had nothing to do with dishonorable discharge,” clarified Col. John Wojcik, general counsel of the Michigan National Guard, after several lawmakers demanded that the Guard take dishonorable discharge off the table for not being vaccinated. Wojcik and two other Michigan National Guard representatives said the vaccine is proven to be the most effective tool against COVID-19.
The guard is still awaiting guidance on booster shots requirements.
“I want to counter your point of the vaccine being the most effective tool [against COVID-19]. It’s actually not true,” Johnson said. “The most effective tool is don’t smoke, don’t be fat, exercise, eat healthy. That does far more than a vaccine does.”
In fact, research has repeatedly shown that being vaccinated against COVID-19 is the best way to cut down on an individual’s chances of getting seriously ill or dying from the virus. A September study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that an individual is 11 times more likely to die of COVID-19 if they are unvaccinated.
Underlying health factors like obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes can also lead to more severe and possibly lasting symptoms, but simply being healthy is not enough on its own to avoid contracting COVID-19. Even young, healthy people can catch COVID-19 and experience severe illness or die.
Earlier this year, Johnson oversaw a committee hearing that approved a bill prohibiting “vaccine passports,” which do not currently exist in Michigan. He also introduced legislation in September banning Michigan from enforcing the federal vaccine mandate for workers.
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