Fort Rucker, AL made headlines recently as commanding general David Francis demanded all soldiers be vaccinated or wear a face mask if unvaccinated. According to reports, if you are not wearing a mask on Fort Rucker, you must be able to show proof of vaccination. General Francis’ concern in the rising rates of COVID-19 cases in the adjacent counties around Fort Rucker is the cause for implementing the General Order. General Frances stated, “The big difference is going to be that if you are not wearing a mask, the leadership will be able to ask you, ask soldiers, to prove that they’ve been vaccinated by showing their vaccination card.”
Vaccine and Mask Policy
Current policy on military installations permits fully vaccinated troops, civilians, and contractors to go without a face mask on government facilities. This past week, the media publicized Fort Rucker as the first military installation to require proof of vaccination. However, on June 22, the DoD issued updated Force Health Protection Guidance, allowing any commander or supervisor on a military base to ask unmasked uniformed personnel about their vaccination status. The directive also stated that servicemembers and civilian employees who misrepresent their vaccination status may be subject to appropriate adverse administrator or punitive actions.
Smallpox and variolations
Vaccine requirements – and debates – in the military is not without precedent. The College of Physicians in Philadelphia provides insight into the Vaccine History of the U.S. Military, particularly concerning the colonies. Smallpox, an extreme menace for early America, devastated Native American populations and was extremely detrimental in the Revolutionary War effort. British soldiers had better immunity than colonial fighters due to previous exposure at home. Nearly 50% of the 10,000 Continental Army soldiers around Quebec fell ill with smallpox in 1776. John Adams stated, “The smallpox is ten times more terrible than the British, Canadians, and Indians together. This was the cause of our precipitate retreat from Quebec.”
A year later, George Washington, Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, ordered mandatory inoculations for soldiers who had not gained prior immunity to smallpox through infection. At the time, the inoculation procedure was known as variolation. Variolation was performed by inserting or rubbing powdered smallpox scabs or fluid from contagious pustules into small scratches made in the skin of the uninoculated. Smallpox normally spreads through air, infecting the mouth, nose, or respiratory tract before spreading throughout the body. When variolation is used, the skin usually contracts a milder infection, still creating the needed immunity to the virus.
Washington’s Approach – Relative now?
At the time, variolation was technically outlawed by the Continental Congress, so Washington was brazenly defying the law. Initially, only recruits were required to be inoculated under Washington’s order. Later, divisions were inoculated, then quarantined en masse, a process that continued for much of the war. As a result of Washington’s orders, the Continental Army became the world’s first organized inoculation program for the prevention of smallpox. Some suggest earlier smallpox inoculation of the Continental Army would have assisted in a faster conclusion of the Revolutionary War.
Friday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that 70% of active-duty troops have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. With vaccine remaining a choice for most military personnel, that statistic is far behind the Pentagon’s original goal of vaccinating the whole force by mid-July.
However the, vaccine will soon become mandatory. Earlier this month, the Army Times stated that the Army is provisioning and preparing for mandatory COVID-19 vaccines as early as September 1. The trigger appears to be full FDA licensure. While these may be ‘unprecedented’ times, the commander in chief of the Continental Army may beg to differ.