Blame George Washington for Vaccines in the Military

Immunization is American as apple pie.

(U.S. Army Private Elvis Presley received vaccinations for typhoid, tetanus, and influenza before shipping out during the Korean War. Credit: Bettman Collection.)

[For those who want to listen to this on-the-go, the audio version should be up on Apple’s podcast website soon. You can also listen here.]

On Monday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III wrote a memo to his staff indicating that he would be accelerating an order for all Active Duty military personnel to receive the COVID vaccination, presumably by Sept. 15th.

If you’re a servicemember or veteran or part of the larger military family, you know this is pretty straightforward. Immunizations are nothing new.

When I enlisted in 2005, I was required to get so many vaccinations during basic training that I lost count. I recall at least six or seven different shots, but it was probably more. Essentially, a good chunk of your introduction to military life is standing around in lines for hours at a time waiting to get stabbed by medical personnel.

Most of these shots don’t really register on the pain scale, but the absolute worst was what we lovingly call “the peanut butter shot”.

You walk into yet another medical room, drop your drawers, bend over, and a dose of bicillin (penicillin) gets stuck right into your ass cheek in front of all your new friends.

I wouldn’t call the immediate pain terrible, but you sure as hell feel it. But getting stabbed isn’t the worst part; that comes later when you realize that the sense there’s a spoonful of peanut butter lodged in your ass muscles isn’t going away anytime soon.

It feels like a bunch of angry people took turns punching your ass cheek in that specific spot. You can barely sit. You can sleep, so long as you’re turned over on to the side opposite of the golf ball now apparently taking up residence in your derrière.

Anyway, it all sucks in the moment, but it saves your life and the lives of those around you, and it’s required.

That’s right! Service members are required to get these shots. Immunizations aren’t optional.

But this isn’t recent history either. Requiring immunizations for American military personnel is a tradition older than the Constitution, and you can blame George Washington for that.

In 1775, more than half the Continental Army had smallpox, which is the single greatest factor for getting their asses kicked at the Battle of Québec.

On the advice of his chief medical officer, Washington required his troops to be immunized through variolation, which I will not describe here for the squeamish, but for those interested, here’s a rather graphic scene from the John Adams miniseries.

Despite its remarkable effectiveness, variolation had a death rate as high as 2 percent, underlining that its primitive nature came with clear risks.

And yet, this archaic form of preventing the spread of deadly illness was rightly considered by Washington and his medical advisors to be far and away a better alternative than risking death from smallpox infection, then as much as 16% of all cases.

If COVID had a similar fatality rate, more than 5.7 million Americans would be dead by now — nine times the already horrific number of Americans who had tragically died from COVID by this morning.

(By comparison, complications from receiving the COVID vaccine are extremely rare, and if you happen to have an adverse reaction, medical personnel can address it on-site.)

Many things have changed about the U.S. Armed Forces since the dawn of the Republic, but immunizations have always been part of military life.

Active Duty servicemembers still have to get annual flu shots on top of whatever other scheduled baseline vaccinations come up, and that’s before you consider deployments and specific military occupations and special duty assignments in areas of the world that require even more vaccinations.

This is why where I might have empathy for some civilians in particular circumstances who are worried about getting their COVID shot, I have zero empathy for servicemembers who are “concerned”. I don’t believe them. They know the game. They’ve been through this many times.

So, why are they pretending this one shot is an infringement on their rights and not the dozen or more shots they got as a recruit?

Because our national environment has become so completely warped that the most common sense things are now broadly yielding to political loyalties. These few servicemembers believe they’re “owning the libs” and showing support for Trump by refusing to protect themselves and their families and everyone else, too.

These soldiers are hypocrites and clowns, and if they refuse to be immunized, they should face consequences, up to and including a dishonorable discharge. No exceptions.

Ultimately, this is about more than the everyday duties of a servicemember. It’s about the example they set for the rest of the country. We should absolutely expect the highest standards from those serving in uniform.

All the perks and benefits and universal respect from an admiring public is conditional on the assumption that servicemembers meet incredibly high standards in fidelity to the Constitution and the greater good of our country.

And the country is watching. This is a national security issue. It matters that our military does what needs to be done.

As General Washington wrote: “Example, whether it be good or bad, has a powerful influence.”


Hi, I’m Charlotte Clymer, and this is Charlotte’s Web Thoughts, my Substack. It’s completely free to access and read, but if you feel so moved to support my writing, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription: just $7/month or save money with the $70/annual sub. You can also go way above and beyond by becoming a Founding Member at $210.

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