About half of the 10,000 active duty Air Force airmen and Space Force guardians not vaccinated for COVID-19 are seeking religious exemptions, and 800 verbally refused the vaccine, according to Air Force data released Wednesday. 

The Air Force’s and Space Force’s COVID-19 vaccination compliance deadline was Tuesday for active duty troops. According to data obtained by VOA, 97% of active duty airmen and guardians have had at least one vaccine dose, with 95% fully vaccinated.  

“Our airmen need to be prepared to operate anytime, anywhere in the world,” General C.Q. Brown, Air Force chief of staff, said Wednesday. “Getting vaccinated ensures we are a ready force.” 

Of the unvaccinated, 4,933 are requesting religious exemptions, which the Department of the Air Force has 30 business days to process. 

Last month, the archbishop for military services said Catholic troops should be able to refuse the vaccine based on conscientious objection. 

“No one should be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience,” said Timothy Broglio, archbishop for the military services. 

The archbishop had previously supported President Joe Biden’s mandatory vaccination order for U.S. service members. While Broglio still encouraged troops to get vaccinated, he added that the Catholic Church’s permission to get the COVID-19 vaccine should not overrule a member’s conscientious objections to vaccines tested or derived from lab replicas of abortion-derived cells, which is how the COVID-19 vaccines were developed. 

Katherine Kuzminski, of the Center for a New American Security, told VOA last month the archbishop was “threading a really fine needle,” adding that vaccines for chickenpox, rubella, hepatitis A and poliovirus were all tested with “abortion-derived cell lines” like the tests conducted for the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines. 

“The question will be: Has this person ever raised a conscientious objection to a previous vaccine?” she said. 

The Air Force deadline was the earliest of all the military services, with deadlines for active duty troops in the Army, Navy and Marines coming later this year. The Pentagon said Monday that 97% of all active duty troops had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Some exemptions have been granted on rare occasions. These include five permanent medical waivers granted to sailors in the Navy and 1,866 exemptions granted by the Air Force and Space Force for medical or administrative reasons, such as when a service member is months away from retiring from the force. 

Data provided to VOA from the military service branches Tuesday showed 94% of the Army, 99% of the Navy and 93% of the Marine Corps were fully or partially vaccinated.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is “pleased by the level of effort” that the military services have put into vaccinating the force, especially once the mandate came in response to the “more lethal delta variant.” 

Kirby added that while Austin is “not unmindful of the fact” that some service members are refusing the vaccine, the secretary trusts that the leaders of the military service branches “will continue to manage this mandatory vaccine regimen in a compassionate and professional manner.” 

The failure by some to meet the vaccination deadlines leaves senior leaders with tough choices concerning their fate. 

Active duty troops are vaccinated at a much higher rate than their Reserve and Guard counterparts, some of whom have deadlines as late as June 30, 2022.

About one-fifth of all U.S. service members — hundreds of thousands of troops — have yet to get a single COVID-19 vaccine dose.

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