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I am looking forward to this discussion and affording our members the opportunity to ask their questions on DOD's response to COVID-19. And I want to welcome all of our witnesses. First, the Honorable Gilbert Cisneros Jr., the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Department of Defense. Secondly, the Honorable Gabe Camarillo, Undersecretary of the Army, Department of the Army.
And the honorable [Erik] Raven, Undersecretary of the Navy, Department of the Navy, and the honorable Gina Jones Undersecretary of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force. Before hearing from them, and our witnesses, let me offer Ranking Member Kim an opportunity to make his opening remarks, as well.
Thank you, Chairman. Thank you. This is our first hearing of this vital subcommittee. We are charged with supporting our service members and their families. And I can think of nothing our Congress can do that is more meaningful than that. We can and should review how the pandemic affected the Department of Defense.
Nearly three quarters of a million people affiliated with DOD were infected by COVID-19. Thousands were hospitalized and hundreds died. Every loss of life is tragic and we hope that the actions taken during the pandemic minimize the loss. We also cannot ignore the toll that the pandemic had had on our service members and their families who are facing childcare closures, delayed PCS moves and limited access to health care.
While I recognize the value of reviewing the actions of DOD during this heart of the pandemic, including a mandate that's no longer in effect, I look forward to working with the Chairman and my colleagues in a bipartisan manner on other matters more immediately impacting our national security and the quality of life of our service members and their families.
From troubling data on military suicides across the services to chronic childcare, shortages across military bases to challenges accessing health care, there are many areas where I'm confident we can find common ground on matters under the purview of our subcommittee. Yes, there are deep divisions in our politics in Congress, but if ever there was a place where we could come together, it would be in this committee, charged with supporting those that protect us. Let's focus on where we can come together and get things done and not immediately jump to where we have divisions.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, DOD has remained agile on two very important fronts. First, the department played a critical role in meeting the whole of government needs by providing health care workers and logistics expertise, among others. In addition, the department responded to shifting force health protection guidance.
As we start today's hearing, I believe DOD and the services have all complied with the NDAA provisions rescinding the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. And while the vast majority of service members across all components complied with the vaccine requirement, a small percentage of them decided, for various reasons, to either refuse to vaccinate or seek an exemption.
There are legitimate questions to discuss here. For those who sought an exemption, I want to know from each of the military departments how they established a COVID-19 vaccine exemption process and whether those processes were standardized, as required by the NDAA. I'm particularly interested on this issue as it relates to discharge characterizations, which is an important factor since these characterizations impact benefits after the service member has transitioned to civilian life.
But as we engage in this discussion today, let's keep the politics out of it and approach with calm and civility. Let's keep perspective that decisions were made in the chaos of the pandemic, with a focus on saving lives. We can spea -- seek to learn best practices and always improve and how we care for those who serve us. Let us keep in mind the perspective that vaccine requirements are not new to the military, as the Congressional Research Service points out that, quote, 'the US military instituted its first vaccination program in 1777, when General George Washington directed the Continental Army to be protected from smallpox.
Let's keep perspective that there are currently up to 17 vaccines required for service members, some for all and others based on jobs and deployment.' And I'll end by just simply reading this statement that House Armed Services Committee Chair, Mike Rogers released in 2021 when he was a ranking member and the vaccine mandate was first sought.
He said, quote, 'vaccines protect our men and women, many of whom live in cramped and crowded conditions from the spread of disease while at home or deployed across the globe. Teleworking isn't an option for the soldiers, sailors, marine, airmen, and guardians who work every day to confront near-peer rivals and non-state terrorists.
We must not allow COVID-19 to be a hindrance on our force.' Secretary Austin earlier confirmed that, as of mid-July -- this is in 2021 -- over 70 percent of active duty troops had received at least one vaccine shot. That is encouraging news and I hope that number reaches 100 percent quickly. I yield back the balance of my time.
I thank the ranking member. I ask for unanimous consent to allow members not on the subcommittee to participate in today's hearing and be allowed to ask questions after all subcommittee members have been recognized. Each witness will have the opportunity to present his or her testimony, and each member will have an opportunity to question the witnesses for five minutes.
We respectfully ask the witnesses to summarize their testimony in five minutes or less. Your written comments and statements will be made part of the hearing record. With that Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. Mr. Cisneros, you may make your opening statement.
Chairman Banks, Ranking Member Kim, and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today on the status of the Department of Defense's actions to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, protect our personnel across the total force, and ensure that the US military can fight and win whenever needed in defense of the United States.
Since the pandemic began, the civilian and defense and military leaders of the department, across two administrations, has led a highly effective response to an invisible, novel and evolving threat. I appreciate the opportunity to share our experiences. The pandemic has nothing short of a -- was nothing short of a national and global tragedy.
More than 1.1 million Americans lives' were lost to COVID-19, including 96 service members. People are my top priority and we all mourn the loss of our people to this awful disease. The department's response to the COVID-19 pandemic was historic and complex. Members of the armed forces on active duty and the Reserves and in the National Guard helped staff and operate testing and vaccination sites, provided medical and logistical support to stressed hospitals and overburdened civilian medical systems and transported critical medical supplies when global supply chains froze.
The nation is stronger, thanks to the department's swift and effective actions, which helped save the lives of many Americans, both in and out of uniform. The Department of Defense and the military services took bold, necessary steps to protect the force and its ability to operate in response to this new threat.
These consisted of multilayered approaches to force health protection, including distancing, masking requirements, testing, staggered work schedules, remote work when possible, pre-deployment restrictions of movement, and mass immunization of the force. And when the COVID-19 vaccination became available, our service members received the vaccine to protect themselves, their teammates and their family members.
Today, more than two million service members, over 96 percent, are vaccinated against COVID-19. Vaccination requirements for military personnel are not new and are important to maintain individual medical readiness and reduce risk to mission. A small fraction of service members who did not request or receive an exemption or accommodation from the requirement to be vaccinated against COVID-19, refused to receive the COVID-19 vaccin -- vaccine even after receiving the lawful order to do so. And approximately 8,100 were subsequently separated.
Compliance with lawful orders is not optional in the military, and leaders within the military service took appropriate, disciplinary action, including separation, when appropriate, to maintain good order and discipline. The combination of these measures enabled the US military to continue crucial operations and the challen -- amongst -- amid a challenging global threat environment.
These policies continued to succeed at protecting our people and the nation's security. The department's prompt and effective actions saved countless lives and ensured critical mission readiness to defend the United States against all national security threats. In December 2022, for the first time in history, Congress passed legislation to rescind the vaccination requirement for service members.
The department has complied with the NDAA requirement. On January 10, 2023, Secretary Austin signed a memorandum rescinding the COVID-19 vaccination requirement, as required by statute, and indicating that the department will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all service members.
On February 24, Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks published a memorandum directing DOD component heads to formally rescind policies, directives, and guidance related to COVID-19 vaccination requirements as soon as possible, if they have not done so already, and to certify, in writing, to my office that these actions have been completed no later than March 17, 2023. Let me be clear, as we sit here today, there is no COVID-19 vaccination requirement for service members or any other Department of Defense personnel.
The military service no longer require COVID-19 vaccinations for sessions to or retention in their respect respective military service. This includes all new military sessions, enlisted an officer, as well as cadets and midshipmen and officer commissioning programs. The department continues to encourage service members and civilian employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and boosters.
In this year of major milestones, the 50th anniversary of the all-volunteer force and the 75th anniversary of President Truman's executive order to provide equality of treatment and opportunity for all service members, the dedication of our total force to ensure mission readiness and defend America's national security is a critical message for young Americans.
I appreciate the opportunity to showcase the collective power of our department against an overwhelming challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic. I look forward to your questions. Thank you.
Thank you, Mr. Camarillo?
Chairman Banks, Ranking Member Kim, distinguished members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you -- before you on behalf of the soldiers in the United States Army. The Army's response to the COVID-19 pandemic allowed us to keep our people safe and fulfill critical mission requirements.
I'm particularly proud that as part of an interagency team, the Army took a significant role in acquiring and distributing COVID-19 vaccines, medical treatments, ventilators, gloves and other equipment to places where they were needed the most. The Army showed, yet again, that in times of crisis we will answer the nation's call.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 took hundreds of lives in the Army community, but we took deliberate steps to protect our personnel. Across two administrations, the Army took decisive action to protect our soldiers, civilians and their families and to predent -- prevent additional deaths. Those efforts included instituting teleworking protest -- policies, contact tracing protocols, and implementing Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's requirement to vaccinate our service members in 2021. These steps follow department wide policy and expert medical advice.
Our efforts enabled the Army to continue to participate in training events and exercises, conduct operations worldwide, and to maintain a high level of readiness throughout the pandemic. The Army implemented the vaccine requirement carefully. We first educated the force on the benefits of the vaccine. We also explained the exemption process to each of our soldiers For soldiers who requested religious accommodations, the Army gave each a careful and individualized review to ensure that we upheld constitutionally protected, First Amendment rights.
Our deliberate review process considered the specific facts of each individual case, seeking to determine whether accommodations were feasible. We also processed numerous medical exemption requests, based on a physician's recommendation. Soldiers who refused the order to be vaccinated without an approved or pending accommodation or exemption request were subject to adverse administrative actions.
Beginning in February of 2022, regular Army soldiers who continued to refuse the vaccination order were subject to involuntary separation. Given the unique circumstances in the National Guard and Reserve, we took a deliberate, methodical approach to reserve component vaccine implementation. Our efforts resulted in the Army successfully administering vaccinations to over 900,000 soldiers, achieving a vaccination rate of over 94 percent across the total force, including 98 percent in the active component and over 91 percent for the reserve component.
Following last year's NDAA, the Army promptly implemented the law and terminated its requirement to vaccinate all soldiers against COVID-19. We also directed commands to suspend involuntary separations and any adverse administrative actions based solely on a soldier's refusal to comply with the order to become vaccinated.
And ultimately, to further reinforce our compliance with the NDAA, on February 24th, Secretary Wormuth rescinded the Army's prior directive implementing the COVID-19 vaccine mandate and governing enforcement. This new policy describes how the Army will handle remaining issues related to the required -- rescinded mandate, including cases in which soldiers have pending, religious accommodation requests for multiple vaccines.
It also makes clear, as has been the case since Secretary Austin ended the vaccine mandate in January, that receiving the COVID vaccine is not a requirement for joining the Army. Soldiers who disagree about how their cases were handled, can seek relief through the Army Board of Correction for military records.
I remain deeply proud of the Army's response to the global pandemic and our collective efforts over two administrations to promote our people's health and well-being. As the pandemic showed us, our soldiers are always ready to defend our nation and to contribute to our security and well-being. Thank you.
Thank you. Mr. Raven.
Good afternoon, Chairman Banks, Ranking Member Kim, and distinguished members of this subcommittee. I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the actions of the Department of the Navy to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and our recently announced policies on COVID-19 vaccinations. I want to state, upfront, the rescission of the COVID-19 vaccination mandate is in effect.
Within the Department of the Navy, including our service academy, there are no limitations for a session, assignment, or deployment based on COVID-19 vaccination. We have updated policy and distributed new guidance in accordance with the law to ensure this direction is clear and consistently enforced. It is said that adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it. The adversity brought by the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that the Department of the Navy's character is strong and true.
On behalf of Navy Secretary Del Toro and the senior civilian and military leadership of the Navy and Marine Corps, I want to convey how proud we are of the sailors, marines and civil servants. We are proud to have led in the development, distribution and widespread administration of a vaccine to fight a deadly disease that, to date, has killed over 1.1 million fellow -- fellow Americans, including 18 uniformed members of the Navy and Marine Corps.
We are proud of our leaders, at every level, who implemented and enforced the lawful COVID-19 vaccine mandate, that ultimately led to a vaccination rate of 97 percent for service members and 91 percent for Department of the Navy civilians. We are proud of our people who maintained high levels of readiness, including medical readiness through vaccinations to ensure our Navy and Marine Corps could support and defend our nation and our way of life, despite the enormous challenges of a global pandemic.
These challenges included battling a contagious disease while training future service members in the close quarters of our recruit training depots or deploying across the globe in the tight confines of a Navy ship. And we are especially proud of what our sailors and Marines did to help our nation in direct response to the pandemic, deploying thousands of active and reserve forces across the nation, some to your own districts, to increase our medical capacity as well as facilitate logistical and medical supply requirements.
Safeguarding the health and welfare of a force is indispensable for the success of any military organization. This continues to be a priority for the Department of the Navy. Although the COVID-19 vaccine mandate has been rescinded, we will not relax our vigilance to protect our people and their mission. We will continue to promote vaccinations to maintain medical readiness across the force and to make the COVID-19 vaccination widely available.
I'm confident that our high vaccination rate across the DON, both saved lives and kept our service members in the fight. The DON, through depart -- through the continued support of Congress, is focus -- focused on producing, deploying, and sustaining naval expeditionary forces that will perform successfully across the globe in the full range of military operations, from maintaining deterrence during peacetime to defeating with overwhelming force, when necessary.
COVID-19 will not likely be the last disease to threaten the readiness of our military. We have many lessons learned from our COVID-19 response, to ensure we are minimizing addressable risks, and -- and are prepared to take decisive action in future crises, as we did to battle COVID-19, to maintain the credibility and capability of our forces.
Throughout this pandemic, your fleet remains strong. Your Marines and sailors are, have been, and always will be ready and able to provide worldwide response, 24, seven. I look forward to answering your questions. Thank you.
Thank you, Ms. Jones?
Good afternoon. Chairman Banks, Ranking Member Kim, distinguished members of the Armed Services Committee and this Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. It is my pleasure to be able to discuss the Department of the Air Force's highly effective efforts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The steps used to protect our total force, both military and civilian, enable the DAV to continue protecting the nation and defend its interests around the globe at a time of unprecedented challenge. I will also address the efforts underway to implement the rescission of the mandate, while continuing to take care of our personnel and execute global missions on a daily basis.
I am grateful to be sitting here today, speaking without a mask on, with a relatively high confidence that I will remain healthy and that if I fall ill, the risk of death from the effects of COVID-19 are far less likely than early in the pandemic. Additionally, I am grateful that we have efficacious treatments, should they be needed.
This was not the case 26 months ago. December 2020, when the FDA first granted the emergency use authorization for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, was the deadliest month for COVID-19 related deaths in the United States. That month, our nation experienced more than 65,000 confirmed and probable COVID-19 related deaths, raising our total count to over 334,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
It was also that month that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention initiated new travel restrictions to and from the United Kingdom, where we have a significant force presence, to contain a new variant that was 70 percent more transmissible. When Secretary of Defense Austin mandated immunization for service members on August 24, 2021, our national death toll had risen to over 634,000. Those circumstances drove the Department of the Air Force's decision to implement the earliest vaccination deadline amongst the military departments.
The decision to immunize was the right decision at the time and, in fact, the only choice, given the criticality of our mission. I will never forget those dire, summer months, when I would receive a notification, sometimes as many as two a day, about a DAV teammate who died due to COVID-19 related complications, only to read they were unvaccinated.
Vaccination was essential in allowing us to deploy, rotate our forces to countries that mandated vaccination, and most importantly keep the men, women and dependents of the DAV healthy. As they have for decades, the vast majority of our airmen and guardians complied with the lawful order to vaccinate. Of the over 500,000 total force airmen and guardians, approximately 98 percent followed the Secretary of Defense's lawful order.
As a result, our force was able to focus on the mission. While vaccination has received the overwhelming majority of public attention, I want to reinforce that the department did not rely solely on immunization to protect the force. The DAV, in concert with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the other services, took a holistic approach to combat COVID-19. Through a series of prophylactic measures, such as masking, physical distancing, telework, remote work, travel and deployment restrictions and control, we maintained readiness, while much of industry and the commercial sector ground to a standstill.
The DAV continued our flying mission, operating from austere locations, conducting worldwide operations, executing strike and mobility operations in support of the joint force, maintaining our nuclear deterrent, and ensuring we continued to induct and train our force. Our collective safety measures kept our depots running, facilities maintained, bases operating and missions executed.
The DAV simultaneously supported national efforts to augment civilian emergency response, mass testing, immunization and health care infrastructure, notably hospitals operating beyond capacity. The Air Force Medical Service deployed 2,700 total force airmen in support of COVID-19 response operations during the pandemic.
We deployed ten vaccination teams to ten cities and nine states to deliver 1.6 million vaccinations. And we deployed 612 medical personnel to support 33 locations in 18 states, many of which represented on this committee today, to provide inpatient, critical care at hospitals experiencing significant personnel shortages.
We were only able to do this because of the vaccination rates within our force. On January 10th, Secretary Austin rescinded the vaccination mandate for military personnel, at direction of Congress. Accordingly, on January 23, Secretary Kendall formally rescinded his order to vaccinate, as well as the force implementation guidance associated with the mandate.
We are actively working with OSD and the other services to expeditiously implement Secretary Austin's guidance. We also have ceased ongoing reviews of current service members religious, administrative, or medical accommodation requests for exemption from the vaccine, to include accommodation denial appeals.
Additionally, we have taken steps to ensure that no bars to enlistment or commissioning to include to include those commissions were -- that were held in a value -- in abeyance. Let me close by expressing my profound respect for the men and women of the DAV, for their tenacity, resolve, hard work, and result -- resilience, and indomitable spirit in the face of this pandemic.
Thank you, again, for the opportunity to appear before the committee and I look forward to your questions.
Thank you to each of you. I'll begin with questions. Mr. Cisneros, last night, OSD replied to a February 12th letter from me and Chairman Rogers, regarding DOD's COVID policies. I'm going to quote a few lines from the response. Military service -- services officials are determining, quote, 'appropriate action for service members who did not submit an exemption or accommodation request remained unvaccinated and refused a lawful order to take the vaccine,' end quote.
My first question is, why are officials in the services still reviewing these cases if the COVID-19 vaccine mandate was rescinded?
Well, thank you for the question there, Mr. Chairman. You know, this is a situation we've never really been in before, where we've actually be -- had to go through a process of repealing a vaccine that we've mandated, and Congress initiating a statute to make us take it back. This is a new process for us, it's something we're trying to figure out, and we've been working on it. The situation that you just described was members who refused the vaccine, who disobeyed a lawful order.
The services are going through a process to look at that and evaluate what needs to be done in those situations. And for more information I can turn it over to the services to kind of have them reflect in (inaudible) --
So -- so your answer is that the reason that we're still reviewing cases, after the vaccine mandate was rescinded, is because they disobeyed a lawful order? Is that what I heard -- heard you say?
Those who refused the vaccine and did not put in a request for accommodation, refused a lawful order. That is correct.
But expand for a minute -- for a minute, just -- what's the point? If we rescinded the mandate, what's the point of continuing to review the cases?
Well, they're reviewing the cases because, as I said, they rev -- they obeyed a lawful order in order to maintain good order and discipline. It's very important that our service members go and follow orders when they are lawful. And there were several, or thousands that did not. And so those services are going through a process to review those cases to make a determination what needs to be done.
All right. Then -- then there was this statement, quote, 'no service members currently serving will be separated based solely on their refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, if they sought an accommodation based on religious, administrative, or medical grounds,' end quote. So if service members did not receive or seek an accommodation for the COVID-19 vaccination, are you still planning to separate those service members?
That is up to the services. But no, as the statement said, no individuals being separated for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. If individuals have been separated, there have been -- were separated because they disobeyed a lawful order.
Any -- any of you able to respond to that? Mr. Camarillo?
Mr. Chairman, there are a number of cases that we still have yet to review, for individual soldiers, that, as Secretary Cisneros said, chose to -- no -- not comply with a lawful order. I would just add that each of these cases has to be evaluated on its own, individual merits because they're highly fact specific.
There may be, in any instance, numerous violations of the UCMJ or other, you know, other areas in which there might be circumstances in which to -- to look at disciplinary procedures. So we'd have to look at them all individually, on a case by case basis.
That -- that's exactly right. We are go -- we are determined to look at each of these cases on the merits of the facts of each case, and we will conduct an individualized review of each one of these cases.
Yeah, let me just say, I mean we have implemented guidance to rescind the mandate. We're not reviewing any further exemptions. Those have been referred to -- returned to the service members without action The, you know, as captioned by my colleagues, we're doing this expeditiously, and look forward to working toward the 17 for -- 17 March deadline that P&R has put in place, to make sure all these things are -- are fully rescinded.
Yeah, I -- I know you're going to hear from a lot of my colleagues today, who are infuriated by the -- the double standard and message that you're sending to our troops -- rescinding a policy and then still punishing them for the -- the -- for not taking the vaccine. But I'm going to move on and leave that up to some of my colleagues.
In his opening statement, Undersecretary Cisneros said that many vaccines are, quote, 'required for all military personnel who do not already have immunity,' end quote. Last week, The Lancet medical journal, published a study showing that natural immunity is as effective as two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at preventing severe illness and death.
Thousands of service members were discharged and tens of thousands pet -- of potential recruits were barred from enlisting because they had not been vaccinated against COVID-19. However, a significant portion of them did have immunity, due to a prior COVID infection. Secretary Cisneros, does the DOD acknowledge The Lancet's conclusion that natural immunity is a -- is as effective as a vaccination?
Chairman, Mr. Chairman, I believe we're still kind of evaluating the results of the COVID, and the research that's going through. It's not like chickenpox, where if you get it once and you're good. There have been people who have gotten COVID numerous times. And so we don't know about natural immunity there, as far as, you know, how it works and how effective it is. And so we are going based on the research that we have, and we've continued to update and change our policies, as the research has -- has progressed and we've gone through this process.
But right now, there is no more COVID-19 vaccine, although we do still encourage our members to get the vaccination, as well as the boosters, when they come out.
So recruits can be exempt from chicken pox and measles vaccines, if they have natural immunity. Is the DOD considering natural and -- natural immunity, while reviewing cases of service members who refused the COVID-19 vaccine, or is that off the table?
The -- you know, again, Mr. Chairman, as the -- the research gets better and we learn more about this disease, it's still very -- relatively young. It's only been since 2020 that this has been around. There's no -- there's no good evidence, and the research is still going on as to how we need to progress with this.
But as a right now, national -- natural -- nation -- natural immunity is not something that we believe in for this. And so we are still moving forward. But again, right now, there is no COVID-19 mandate. There is no COVID-19 requirement for servicemembers to enter the military or to be in the military.
All right. I'll yield to the ranking member.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. I just want to take a step back here, because all -- the four of you have done an exhaustive amount of just review and looking through the last couple of years. And I guess I just want to kind of tease out from you, just what are some of the top lessons that you learned about how the department, as a whole, approach this and -- as well as the different services?
But if you don't mind, I'll start with Undersecretary Cisneros. You know, given the scope of the DOD response, for the whole of government effort in support of the pandemic, but what are some of the key lessons learned for the department, that you think will -- will serve us better, going forward?
You know, one thing I will say is that, I think the department has shown through this, over two administrations, of what it can do and what it can accomplish, when it has the resources, and how quickly it can act. Over the previous administration, Operation Warp Speed was put into effect. The development of a vaccine was initiated.
That was done in record time. The previous administration had -- had, you know, during a memo signed by under -- the former deputy under -- or Deputy Secretary Norquist, was that, you know, as soon as it was the -- the -- the vaccine would be licensed, that they plan to put it into effect and to make it a Requirement as did -- you know, so what we did was, we just kind of pretty much followed on what the previous administration was doing.
And that's why Secretary Austin signed that -- the mandate right after, the day after the first license of the vaccine came out. But I think what we've done and what we showed is that we can really go out and accomplish things. We were able to move supplies around. We were able to -- to respond on a -- on a national basis to support hospitals around the nation, in order to -- to -- when they were overworked.
We were able to -- to build medical hospitals, and in place -- so those places that were overcrowded. The reaction that we were able to do kind of shows, I think, again, how effective the United States military can be. What we do have in place right now is, we do have a biodefense review, or biodefense posture review going on right now, where we should, hopefully, kind of be in -- in the process, kind of wrapping this up, which will kind of lay out some of the things that we learned over the pandemic, and that'll help us prepare -- prepare in the future, in case this ever happens again.
Great. Thank you. Undersecretary Camarillo, anything you want to -- like to add here?
Congressman Kim, just a couple of points I would add. The first is, understanding the Army's role in an interagency response to a national pandemic like this, in the future, whether it's contracting to help acquire vaccines and, you know, personal protective equipment and other -- other similar items, or certainly the construction, through the Corps of Engineers of Emergency Medical treatment facilities, other areas which we surged, you know, first responder, you know, response operations across the country.
Certainly our ability to do that, as part of an interagency team, is something we'll take forward. Secondly, the value of an education campaign, as we explained, the value in benefit of vaccination across the force and how it, as has been said by my colleagues, enable us to maintain a high level of readiness, ensured that our force was protected and be able to be --
Was there a particular method of that education campaign that was most successful or kind of stood out to you?
Well, congressman to achieve 94 percent of the force is something that we're very proud of. And I give a lot of credit to our team -- commanders at every level, our surgeon general, our -- our medics and others, to make sure that they adequately explained the value of these -- these requirements.
Okay, great. Undersecretary Raven, anything you would like to add?
Yes, Mr. Kim. Thank you for the question. I think there's two key lessons that we take forward. First of all, is our experience working in a whole of government team, not only with our sister services and OSD, but other, interagency partners to tackle a global pandemic that impacted life in an unimaginable number of ways.
We have a lot of lessons learned about how to increase our participation with -- with these in -- with these key partners. The second I would say, is much more tactical, and that's about resiliency and supply chain. We learned about -- a lot about shortage of mass. We need to be ahead of the next pandemic.
And in terms of resiliency, we've also learned lessons about the challenges of just simply moving people around the globe, not only service members, but their families. And we will keep those lessons in mind as we -- as we move forward.
Great, thank you. Undersecretary Jones, if you'd like to close this out here?
Yeah, Representative Kim, thank you for the question. So first lesson learned, I mean when your military is vaccinated, your military can step up, when many local communities, health infrastructure is unfortunately, failing under the crushing burden of -- of the pandemic, as we saw. So if I may, just to get very specific, we were able, again, to put 1.6 million shots into the arms of our fellow Americans.
Some of those communities -- Gary, Indiana; Minneapolis, Minnesota, by Representative Finstad; Tampa, Florida; Newark, New Jersey; you know, Brooklyn -- Brooklyn, New York -- I mean, we actually even sent medical personnel into the Hennepin Healthcare system in Minneapolis, the CentraCare, Saint Cloud Hospital in -- in Minnesota.
Again, you know, we showed up when the country needed us. We are proud of what we have done. Again, we were only able to do that because we were vaccinated at the rate we -- at -- we were at -- 99 percent, in the air -- Department of Air Force active duty, 98 percent across the total force. Thanks for the question.
Yeah. Thank you. I yield back.
Undersecretary Cisneros, is there a plan to reinstate the roughly 8,600 servicemembers, across active duty reserves and the guard, back to their point of service?
Thanks for the question, there Representative Gates. Service members that have been separated, there is a policy procedure for that. They can apply to the Board of Corrections if they have a discrepancy, they think there's a discrepancy in their discharge. They can go and do that procedure process.
Sir, I didn't ask about there options.
As far as the --
I asked about your specific pla -- like do you have a plan to go get these folks back into service, in our military?
Well, the -- the policy is the same that has always been, right? If service members are discharged and they want to come back into the service, they can apply. They can go talk to recruiters --
Sir, am I to understand that DoD --
-- to go do --
-- has no active plan to do proactive outreach to these individuals to get them back in the military?
Our plan is the same as it's always been. If the --
Okay. So -- but it doesn't include that active outreach, to get people back, it seems like. I wanted to ask Undersecretary Raven, did the Navy send out form letters in response to people's requests for religious exemptions?
Sir, I'd have to get back to you on that.
Really important, though, because the law requires an individualized assessment of people's request for an indiv -- for a religious exemption, right?
Yes, sir, whatever initial outreach may be. I'll get back to you on that. But in terms of the process we followed, it was individualized review, at multiple levels --
You -- you believe there --
-- for each one.
-- was that individualized review?
Yes, sir. Uh, the --
Well, it -- I mean, the inspector general disagrees with you. The -- the inspector general issued a report in June of 2022. I'm quoting directly from it. 'The denial memorend -- randum we reviewed, generally did not reflect an individualized analysis.' And the IG's report goes on to say that the average amount of time that each package was considered was 12 minutes.
Does 12 minutes seemed like a sufficient amount of time to make an individual review on someone's deeply held religious basis for an exemption?
Sir, the process that was followed included multiple reviews at the medical chaplaincy and legal reviews, senior commanders, going all the way up to -- to headquarters. The Marine Corps established a board with senior level reviews, outside of the chain of command, for each one of these reviews, that amounted to in many cases, more than 10 hours of review of each cases (ph).
That's not what the inspector general says. That seems like a self-assessment, not -- not a reflection on the assessment. And, you know, to -- for -- to hear you say that is concerning, because it would -- it would seem to suggest that you guys haven't really taken to the advice, into the findings of the IG. And -- and it also doesn't really comport with what I saw with my own two eyes, because I went to naval installations and met with service members who could point to letter -- memorandum they'd received, that were exactly identical.
You could have held them up to a lamp, back to back. And it was -- these people had poured out their faith basis to seek an exemption. And then they got a form letter back. And it sort of goes back to my -- my question to Mr. Cisneros, like, are we stronger or weaker as a country, because there are 8,600 people that used to wear the uniform, but because of the vaccine mandate, now they don't?
Congressman, I would say we're as strong as ever. We are still a lethal force. We are already -- our retention has been at record high levels and we are ready to defend the nation today.
I -- I think that you'll find, in a lot of military communities, that feel like they're not as strong, because they see instructor pilots that have been separated, people involved in critical test mission that now are not part of the fighting force. Like, Ms. Jones, how many pilots did we lose because of the vaccine mandate?
Representative, I have to follow up with you on that.
I -- I've --I've got a report here from the Epic Times, I don't know if it's true or not, but it talks about over 700. Does that number sound about right?
That does not sound right. But I'd have to follow up with you. I'm not familiar with the publication that you are --
It strikes me as something we should really know, Mr. Chairman. I mean, you know, right now we've got an Air Force that faces a pilot shortage, and we -- we should know, at this hearing, and I hope we'll get for the record, how many pilots we lost, because I think that if you lost hundreds of pilots, It would be really hard to make the argument that you made, that we're a stronger country because of it. How about special operators?
I know how much money we put into special operators. Did we lose any of them because the vaccine mandate?
I'm sorry, I didn't hear the last part of your question.
Did we lose any special operators because of the VAX mandate? (Inaudible) --
You would have to ask the -- the services to that, for their specific -- the amount of service members that they lost.
Mr. Camarillo, did we lose any Green Berets?
I'd have to take that, for the record, I don't have the breakout.
Gosh, Mr. Chairman --
Rep -- Representative Gaetz, may I follow up with you?
We actually did not discharge any officers as a result of them of them -- Department of the Air Force officers -- as a result of them failing to obey the lawful order. For those that opted to voluntarily separate or volunteer, or retire on lieu of, then that was -- they -- they voluntarily did that, and -- and --
Do we know that number? Because I think what --
I do, actually.
Would you like it?
Yes. So those folks that opted to -- let me -- it's on the other chart. But let me -- there were 610 folks that were -- that were -- that were separated. And, of that, just a small amount of those folks that were separated voluntarily.
I -- I sure hope we --
I can --
-- could have them back.
-- follow-up and find them, for the record.
Great. And, Mr. Chairman, just as I yield back my time to you, I think the breakdown of some of these folks who we invest so much time into training and to see how many of those we lost and to be able to assess readiness, would be important work for our committee, going forward. I appreciate your indulgence and I yield back.
Thank you. I would agree.
It was 40 office -- Air Force officers separation in lieu -- separated in lieu of, 14 officers separated -- retired in lieu of. But I provide that formal answer --
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you very much for your testimony today. And also, just a point of order, having served and having been asked, lawfully, to have vaccinations for the good of the service, for the good of the nation, the people who are now currently in the military, I believe are in a better position because they have obeyed and followed due and lawful orders.
And so good honor and discipline has been upheld and maintained. And so I would argue that we are in a stra -- in a stronger position now than we were before. I will turn, though, to the subject of the haring at large, which is COVID-19 impact on DOD and its service members, and want to talk about, specifically, child care and family issues.
We all know, throughout the pandemic, that access to childcare was an issue, a huge problem for millions of families, and of course, for those in the military, as well. As someone who separated myself, personally, from the Air Force due to childcare issues, among others, I'm particularly concerned about the impact that closures of those centers, both on military bases, as well as off of them, might have had on military retention and recruitment during COVID. Would you be able, each of you, to provide a brief update on the reopening of those child care centers in your branches?
And how did a lack of sustained access to child care potentially impact our military families, in terms of retention and otherwise? And finally for Mr. Cisneros, what lessons have we learned about how to maintain and reopen childcare operations, because we, hopefully, will never see COVID again, but might?
I'll start with -- or it's hard to say. I'm trying not to say Gina. Yeah. The Honorable Undersecretary Jones.
Understood. No. Thank you for the question. And if I may, I applaud your and Representative Bice's bipartisan efforts on the -- on the family leave program. The -- on the childcare piece, you're absolutely correct, in terms of, you know, there was no aspect of our military installations that was not impacted by -- by the pandemic.
And certainly our CDC's are within that. And honestly, we are still continuing to -- to recover from that. Many of our CDC's are understaffed. You know, the staffing shortage across the country, again, is similarly impacting our own. And so we are working very, very hard to -- to get those staffed, to ensure that, again, our folks can focus on mission and not focus on long, long wait times at CDC's. Very proud of the fact that, you know, Secretary Austin's Taking Care of People initiative, as part of that.
We actually went above and beyond what was asked for. And for those folks that come and work for the Department of the Air Force as a direct childcare provider, their first -- their first child would be covered 100 percent. Right? Again, we know how important childcare is, even to the child care providers.
And so, going above, we wanted to make sure we could look our airmen and guardians in the eye and say we are doing absolutely everything we can do to get those CDCs staffed, so you can -- so you can focus, again, on mission. I would really -- thank you for the -- for the question, though, and continue to look forward to working with the committee on -- on that, in particular.
Secretary, Raven, please.
Thank you for that question. Absolutely. The -- the women and men who work at both the CDC's and in our -- in our schools, are vital to readiness, because they surpry -- provide the support to military families that allow service members to do their job. It's an incredibly important mission and we value that at the Department of the Navy.
We, like the rest of the country, continue to experience the same shortfalls that exist in the private sector. We are looking at innovative ways to -- to get after those issues. Just a couple of examples, we have partnered with the cau -- Coronado School District to make use of a facility that was no longer being used for -- for public school, and are now working to transition that into a child development center.
We have also initiated outreach with some colleges to -- to essentially uplift the -- the program, in terms of a pipeline of talented professionals into this very important career area. And we continue to work with -- with P&R and Undersecretary Cisneros on really cross-cutting initiatives to make sure that this -- this important service is as robust as we need it to be.
Secretary Camarillo, please?
Congresswoman, just expand on what my colleagues have said, absolutely critical issue. I think in direct response to your question, during the pandemic, you know, we saw the urgent need to make sure that we kept our CDC workers on staff and paid, even as the CDCs were closed down. But as everybody knows, it exacerbated the larger problem we have regarding access to childcare.
And it's for these reasons that we've all said, Secretary Wormuth has established a very ambitious goal to make sure that, in the Army, you know, we have to place children in child care within 30 days of the need, whether it's on or off installations, whether it's in a CDC, through Army fee assistance, or in-home providers that are appropriately licensed to do that.
And we're taking all the efforts at our disposal to make sure that we can grant access to childcare.
Thank you. I've run out of time and I yield back.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Kim. Appreciate you having these witnesses here before us. Thank you for being here and taking your time out. I'm honored to represent two vital military installations in the Fourth Congressional District of the great state of Missouri, that being Fort Leonard Wood and Whiteman Air Force Base, home of the B-2, stealth bomber.
Fort Leonard Wood, of course, is a critical asset to our military. We train more than 80,000 personnel each year there. You know, our military has incredible capabilities and we're all very proud of that. But readiness is an issue. I think that's one of the things we're really going to concentrate in this subcommittee, the readiness for our personnel.
And this -- this vaccine mandate, which ended up, you know, kicking out 8,400 service members, I don't think it did much for the morale for the military, the morale for America. The Army has really missed its recruitment goals, 25 percent last year, 15,000 soldiers. And we live in an increasingly dangerous world, where the communist Chinese government is the number one threat to our national security.
We've got to be ready. We cannot afford the loss of any more soldiers. So I want to start with Undersecretary Cisneros. And your response to Congressman Gaetz earlier -- I was a little bit shocked when you -- when he asked you are we stronger, and you think we are stronger. How are we stronger after losing 8,400 service members?
Congressman, thanks for the question. We've had over two million service members who have received the vaccine. That's allowed us to remain operational. It's allowed us to deploy forces. It's allowed us to continue training. It has allowed us to do the mission and carry out the national defense strategy.
Our retention is at record levels. So, I would argue that the vaccine has been an integral part of keeping the force ready and played a big part in ensuring our readiness of our force.
But we now know that the vaccine does not completely prohibit the spread of COVID-19. So, you know, looking back, it's a little bit easier to do that, but how are we stronger by losing 8,400 people --
I want to say --
-- when this vaccine may not have prevented the spread of it in the first place?
Congressman, what we do know that the vaccine has been effective as, is keeping people alive and keeping them out of the hospital. And there's been good data and research on that.
All right. Next question for Undersecretary Jones. The Department of Air Force recently issued guidelines on removal of adverse actions related to refusal of COVID-19 vaccinations. Can you explain exactly what the Air Force is doing now, to remove adverse service records?
Representative. thank you for the question. Thanks for your support for -- for Whiteman Air Force Base. I was able to -- to visit last year and it's a -- it's a great mission, total force mission at the -- supported out of the base. So in terms of adverse action, we are doing a couple of things, based on the bucket that you are in. So you -- if you are currently serving and you followed the -- the, or excuse me, you submit an accommodation request and if the adverse action is tied solely to your refusal of the vaccine, then the Air Force Personnel Center is taking steps now, to remove that adverse paperwork from your file.
And there'll be nothing left on that file, it'll be totally expunged?
Well -- so I want to be clear about the caveat. If the only reason is the refusal to vaccinate, then the AFPC, the Air Force Personnel Center, is going to remove that. If there are aggregate -- aggravating factors --
Other misconduct --
-- right? -- other misconduct, then that will have to be reviewed for what may be appropriate. Right? So for those that are currently serving that did not submit a religious accommodation request or avail themselves of any of the exemption processes, they will have to initiate the process with the Air Force Board for correction of military records.
For those that have already separated and would still like to, for example, update their -- their file, they would have to go through the discharge review board.
And so this has been well laid out in the -- in the memo that Secretary Kendall --
-- put out.
Got 30 seconds left. Let's go to Undersecretary Camarillo. Maybe you can answer this. Will there be any tags, markers, codes associated with any service personnel that have been dismissed, that will be recognizable by anyone bringing these service members back? Will they -- will anyone know that these people left, because -- and then brought back because of the mandate?
Their discharge, Congressman, will be consistent with the NDAA. And as Secretary Jones just explained, the Army's following a very similar process. If it's only related to refusal to comply with the COVID vaccine mandate, those will be removed.
Thank you, again, witnesses. I yield back.
Thank you. I didn't expect to go so early. I'm way down here at the end. I'd like to thank Chairman Banks and Ranking Member Kim for holding this hearing today. And I'm really pleased to be a part of this important subcommittee, which really focuses on military health and families. And I'm really glad that we're having this conversation about COVID-19's impact on our service members and their families.
Since the start of COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of active -- active duty service members have been deployed to civilian hospitals across the United States, as you indicated, to help take pressure off our medical staffs, as they battled the effects of COVID-19. And I want to commend all of our service members, especially those from the 99th Medical Group, stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in my district, who are deployed to Places in California during the Omicron wave to provide medical support at overrun hospitals.
Service members stepped up to the plate when this country needed them most. And I would hope that, if nothing else, we can agree that our service members performed remarkably and should be commended. Undersecretary Cisneros, it's good to see you on that side of the dais. Miss you on this side, but we're glad to have you there.
How did the services support the whole of government response to COVID-19, including sending military personnel to civilian hospitals to support COVID-19 related missions?
Congressman, thank you for the question. And I think you described it very well. You know, we had serve -- service members, both in the active duty and the reserve, who deployed all over the country. They went to hospitals. We had service members that went and built hospitals and then served there, as well.
They administered the vac -- or, the COVID-19 test. They administered the vaccinations to individuals. They played an integral part in working through this vaccine, not only for the Department of Defense, but for the entire nation. And as well, as I said in my opening remarks, as you know, we also played an integral part in ensuring the logistics of getting supplies where they needed to be and ensuring that the vaccines were getting to different parts of the country where they needed.
We were able to bring in supplies and -- from -- from all over the world, whether it was you know, mask or surgical suits that were -- that were needed. The -- we were able to go out and do lots of things. The logistics, the purchasing power of the Department of Defense to go out and buy supplies that hospitals needed, buying tests, buying, as they said surgical gears.
The -- being able to go out and procure ventilators for hospitals that needed them. This is all -- this was all done through the Department of Defense. And it played an integral part in helping us get through this pandemic.
Well, if no one else has said it today, I want to thank our service members who played a critical role. Undersecretary Cisneros, I also want to talk about DOD's long-term strategy to mitigate risk from COVID-19 and future pandemics. You know, we've heard a lot of talk today regarding recruitment and retention.
But as several of my colleagues on our side have indicated, if we want to talk about recruitment and retention, and you talk to any service member and their family, ask them about the need for higher military pay. Ask them about more adequate on-base and off-base housing that supports the needs of their family.
Talk about the long waiting lists to get into childcare services and some of the facilities. I know under the last Congress, we expanded a number of those opportunities. But I just really hope that this subcommittee would use our time, in a bipartisan way, to bring the voices of the service members and their families into the readiness discussion.
Readiness is about the quality of life of our service members and their families. So I want to encourage my colleagues to work with us to help make the military more attractive to young men and women who are interested in serving, and to not politicize the health and well-being of those men and women. We are coming out of this pandemic.
We are stronger, and it's because of the Department of Defense that we are in the position, the good position, that we are, to protect both our national defense and our international security around the world. Thank you And I yield back.
Thank you. I'll remind the gentleman, there is a readiness subcommittee. And Chairman Rogers is setting up a quality of life task force within the Armed Services Committee. I'm sure he'll be glad to hear about your interest in that task force as well. Mr. Mills.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you to this team. Colleagues, I'd ask that you keep it very brief, as I want to get through this and I have a lot of questions. First, Mr. Chairman, I'd like to be entered into record, DD form 3176, DD form 3177, for qualifications? Mr. Chairman?
Thank you so much. With that, I also just want to note, something that my colleague, Mr. Gaetz, had followed through on, was the idea that these packages that were actually being submitted for a request of medical exemption or delay, was being reviewed in a time span of about 12 minutes per, to vet these to ensure the actual qualifications of whether they are qualified or not qualified.
Now, have you seen these forms, by chance, the DD 3176 or 3177?
I'm not familiar with that form that you're referring to, but I have looked at some of the packets that have gone through the process of being evaluated.
Okay. Well, let me go ahead and explain really quickly. Some of the questions on here, which is kind of lengthy, but it'll talk about the ideas of medical conditions and circumstances. It talks about your circumstance for being vaccinated, why you would -- you'd feel that you would need to be exempt from it. It talks about your religious liberties, things like that.
Do you think that any -- anyone on this panel can answer that you have the qualifications and/or the vetting process to be able to do this within 12 minutes, which is exactly what the DOD IG said the average time is?
Representative, I would agree with my colleague here, Mr. Camarillo, when he stated earlier, that these -- these packages were -- we're giving a lengthy --
That's not what I asked. I asked, do you think they can be done in 12 minutes?
And I -- when I'm -- when -- my response is, that they were given over a lengthy view and looked over --
The 12 minutes is a lengthy view, in your opinion?
I don't think it was done in 12 minutes. I think they done in a longer time.
So the DOD IG is wrong, is what you're saying? Then, you're on record for saying that the DOD Inspector General is incorrect in this?
I think the -- the DOD Inspector General looked at some kind of numbers and kind of did it and did some math and wrote a letter to the Secretary of his opinion. It's my understanding there's still an IG report on this topic that is coming out later this year.
So staying with you, Undersecretary Cisneros, you said in your statement, just a moment ago, that the United States military is as strong now as ever, even with the 8,400 purged out of our military and the 25,000 and -- shortage in our recruitment. So you're saying that we don't need those additional 30-plus thousand troops, is what you're saying to maintain strength?
What my statement was, Congressman is that the -- the vaccine -- the vaccine, the COVID-19 vaccine allowed us to go out and to train, it allowed us to operate, allowed us to deploy around the world and keep up our mission and def -- and carry out the national defense strategy and defend the nation. Our re --
By -- by my increasingly battle fatigue, sir --
Our retention --
-- because I can tell you, I spent over seven years in Iraq, over three years in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Pakistan, was blown up twice in 2006. There is a -- such thing as battle fatigue. Maybe you haven't experienced it, because there wasn't recruitment shortages to the level they are right now, but they do exist.
Let me move on to my next question, which is simply this, are you familiar with the DOD Defense Casualty Analysis System?
Sir, can you repeat that? The --
The Department of Defense has a Defense Casualty Analysis System. Are you aware of it?
So then you should be aware that, from the time period of 2000 to 2021, that the actual number of deaths due to illness has not changed. And, in fact, the highest year was in 2009 with 277. And, meanwhile, it says, as a result of due to illnesses you have, and I'll read these off quickly, but from 2010 through 2021, yeah, 238, 252, 246, 214, 195, 196, 173, 171 -- it actually starts coming down.
2019, 174, 2020, 154, 2020 (ph), 190, relatively unchanged in the last 22 years. Can you tell me, again, how the COVID vaccine contributed to that?
What I will tell you, sir, is the COVID vaccine allowed us to operate and to -- to be able to deploy our forces around the world and make sure that we continue training and that we're able to carry out the national defense strategy and defend the nation.
Okay. And just a quick question, I noted that it was very simple, that said that administrative exemptions were typically granted for service members who were within six months of separation or retirement. You know, this is almost like the arbitrary thing, where COVID only exists when you stand up, you have to wear your mask, but when you sit down, it magically goes away.
So are you saying, then, that members who had six months or less had less risk of actually spreading the virus, as those who have a year or more? This is your policies by the way, sir.
That is what we are saying, is when that was carried out, when people were allowed to go, they were still required to meet certain -- the force health protection guidance that was put out by the Department of Defense, while they were still serving. And that was, at times, wearing their mask and doing what needed to be done in order to protect themselves and others from the COVID-19. What was granted and what the services did, and I'll let them explain it further, but if a member was -- was getting out and they had made the decision to get out and they were within six months of separation, they were given the administrative accommodation.
Last question, what actual reentry code was everyone given who was force separated?
You'd have to ask the services that, but I know there wasn't one specific. Each service has a different culture and they did it on their own, depending on their service and their culture, as to what they did.
Well, I can tell you this, sir, as a military combat veteran, a proud service member, I will be pushing, as well as for -- I'm sure that our -- our chairman, as well, as for the Armed Services chairman to allow these individuals who were unlawfully purged, in my opinion, to be reentered into the military with their full benefits, their back pay, and be granted what they should have been given, which is the chance to serve our United States military.
With that, I yield back.
Thank you so much, Mr. Chair, to the ranking member. I want to start today, for me, having served our country, I realize that we lost over a million here in the nation. I would also highlight any service member, too, that loses their life. It raises concern for me. So my first line of questioning, looking at those who we know died, that we can look at the particular members -- 96 -- the whole column -- column of 690. What do we know about these cases that, perhaps, moving forward in the future, similar circumstances we might be able to prevent?
Also, do we see any trends, any particular branches, that these more accounted for, in particular instaloc -- installations, CONUS versus overseas? What do we understand about these cases?
Congressman thanks for the question. And I don't have a breakdown by service, and I think each service could explain to you how many, or it could tell you how many service members in their service died. But the one thing I will tell you, that we do know is, as you stated, 96 service members had passed away.
And there was also 36 family members, 417 DOD, civilian employees, and 141 DOD contractors that also passed away from COVID-19. But I will tell you, out of the 96 service members, what we do know is that 93 of them were not vaccinated.
Okay. My next question, I understand that there were efforts to go out to hospitals, but what was taking place on the ground -- hospitals, on our installations? Did we see that they were being overwhelmed with these hos -- hospit -- hospitals -- hospitalization cases?
I think, as we were, you know -- and thank you for that question, because it really, I think kind of gives -- allows us to kind of explain, really how our military is stretched, but yet how they're still able to carry out the mission. While we were going around, deploying around in hospitals around the nation, supporting overworked physicians and communities and setting up hospitals for communities that were overwhelmed by the COVID-19, we still had to run our hospitals, as well, within the medical treatment facilities, throughout our Department of Defense throughout the DHA. And we continued to do that.
And so again, I think that's just shows another aspect of the resiliency of our military force and what they're capable of doing.
And another question, when we look at the number of cases, not just the hospitalizations or the deaths, but the cases, are we able to understand how we're able to better mitigate, moving forward, Pray to God that circumstances do not occur, but what do we understand from those cases?
Well, I think our, you know, we, just like any other hospital, our hospitals experience the same things as hospitals across the nation. You know, there were communities, especially some of our veterans, that were, you know, at risk because of their age and maybe some other preexisting conditions that they may have had.
We had to deal with those in our hospitals. You know, the thing that we learned, I will say again, the most important thing that we learned was that the vaccine does work. The vaccine kept people out of the hospitals and it kept people alive. And for us, that's a win.
But again, you know, yes, vaccinations work, but in some cases it went beyond, as we can see, hospitalizations and deaths. And I'm just making a note there, but moving back now, to a person that wants to re-enter, I mean, we've talked a little bit about that process. But I guess my question would be, do we know, not necessarily how many have re-entered, but how many are actually, now, going through that process?
I will yield to the services on that, if -- if they know how many have actually asked to come back into the service. But as I stated earlier, we already have a procedure for this, those that have left the military and want to come back in. We have a procedure for those that think there's a discrepancy in their discharge and want to have it corrected, that they can go forward and do. And that's at the Board of Corrections.
But we will, you know, we are going to continue to follow the procedures that we already have in place.
I would love to hear from --
I would refer to the services?
-- the services.
Congressman, just to be clear, there's two paths by which anybody who was separated could come back. One is to talk to a recruiter and just re-enlist. The second is, as Secretary Cisneros said, to go through the Board of Correction of military records. I don't have data on how many people were prior separations related to this.
But we can get that, for the record.
Sir, for the Department of the Navy, exactly the same process. An individual can talk to a recruiter or the Board for Correction of Naval Records. We've had single digits, in terms of numbers of individuals who have explored the option of returning to service.
Representative, thanks for the question. For those Department of the Air Force veterans that received a general discharge, if they are interested in being reinstated, they'd have to first meet the Discharge Review Board to have their -- their discharge characterization upgraded. And once they were able to do that, if they do that successfully, then they can talk to a recruiter, assuming they met accession standards, would be able to apply to -- to come bac, in.
Gentleman's time has expired.
Thank you. I yield back.
Thank you, Chair. Undersecretary Raven, you noted in your testimony there was a critical moment in the early days of the pandemic, where the -- there was an outbreak, as we all know very well, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which led to a prolonged docking in Guam. We had over 1,300 confirmed cases. And sadly, and tragically, the death of Chief Petty Officer Charles Thacker Jr. You know, we saw in that case, the significant impact that infectious disease outbreaks can have, not just on our readiness and our ability to execute mission, but also training, maintenance, repair needs.
Now looking beyond COVID and what we've learned from COVID and infectious diseases, however, there may also be implications for our medical response and our ability to respond in any mass casualty event at sea that affects large numbers of our sailors at once. You know better than I do, readiness is key in order to execute mission.
What are the lessons we learned from the Navy responding effectively to infectious disease outbreaks, or any mass casualty event, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? And what steps have been taken to improve its future response, whether it's equipment, whether it's medical and operational chain of command policies and procedures.
We know a lot of these things, unfortunately, fell short and led to what we saw on the Theodore Roosevelt.
Absolutely. And thank you for that question. First of all, a key part of military readiness is medical readiness. And we believe that vaccines have helped preserve medical readiness to preserve military readiness. As you stated, the incident regarding the Theodore Roosevelt was incredibly important, not only for what happened on the ship, but what it meant for out in the world.
You mentioned 1,300 sailors fell ill. About two dozen had to go to the hospital for an intensive care. And the one service member who, unfortunately, passed. This is a reminder that, throughout history, the number of service member deaths from disease exceeds that from direct, enemy action. And so, in the Department of the Navy, we continue to be committed to maintaining medical readiness and preparedness.
That's not only making sure we have medical facilities that are ready and medical personnel who are trained, but supplies on hand to be ready for the next major event, whatever it may be.
Okay, well, I definitely just hope that we've learned from this experience and that we are preparing for, sadly, what will even -- inevitably be next, whether it is mass casualties or outbreak. Speaking to the entire panel, we know that the pandemic caused unprecedented amounts of stress on the American people, but also for many of our service members and their families, as well.
And, now, the GAO found that telehealth, mental health visits surged dramatically in the -- in early days of the pandemic, before declining a bit and tabling off to a stable level, still above, though, pre-pandemic levels. And I think all of us in this room know that, in terms of mental health, this has always been an area of soreness, if you ask me, for the military and making sure that we really provide the care and support to our military men and women.
Ensuring our service members get easy access to mental health, health care is essential to force readiness, in my humble opinion. And as we adapt to now life with COVID and, quite frankly, long COVID in many cases, I'm concerned that we will lose some of the momentum and progress we made during the pandemic, to provide access to mental health care services, but also to encourage folks to actually get the help and support that they need.
And so to all of you here today that's willing to answer, what steps have your organizations taken to make sure that we build on the improvements in mental health and behavioral health access, from -- during the pandemic and how are going to promote its continued usage, going forward?
Thank you for the question. As Secretary Austin's always says, mental health is health, and the health of our service members is definitely his con -- you know, one of his big concerns is one of my major concerns. You know, as you stated, telehealth was something that really expanded during the pandemic.
The ability to do mental health through telehealth is something that was -- was a tremendous help to our service members. We did over 65,000, and have that ability to do 65,000 telehealth, mental telehealth calls in a year. But it is something that we continue to work on, that we want to continue to grow and improve mental health is -- be, well, the lack of behavioral health specialists is not only a concern throughout the military, but a concern throughout the whole nation.
There's just a lack of providers that are out there. So we are doing what we can to increase that. And one of the ways is through telehealth. But we are also taking a public health approach. You know, our family -- our family centers are there, or -- to -- if somebody just needs somebody to talk to, there's a variety of counselors that we have.
I know all the services, and I'll let them kind of explain more, how they're expanding services. Our schools are making counselors available to our students, when they need them. I'm talking specifically at our DoDEA schools, but I'll let the services continue to --
The gentlewoman's time has expired. Ms. Sewell?
Thank you. I look forward to the continued conversation.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Before I begin, I'd like to say that I am, indeed, thrilled to be a new member of the House Armed Services Committee and, of course, this Subcommittee on Military Personnel. I'd like to really thank you, Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Kim, for allowing us to have this conversation today.
I look forward to advocating for all of the military personnel in my district, including those serving at Maxwell Air Force Base, the 187th Fighter Wing, as well as the 117th refueling wing, that are located in my district. I'm glad that we're having this conversation today about COVID-19, and having it with senior leadership in our military.
The COVID pandemic posed a unique threat to our military, not just because it endangered our servicemen and women health, but also it posed a threat to the readiness. I'm proud that the DOD took the necessary steps to vaccinate our men and women in uniform. Moreover, I would like to thank everyone of our servicemen and women who played a role in developing, deploying and administration of the COVID-19 vaccination.
To date, almost nine million total doses of vaccine has been administered to our service members. And as Secretary Cisneros pointed out, we lost 96 service members. One loss is too many. But when you -- when you focus in on the fact that 93 of the 96 that we lost were not vaccinated, I have to tell you, the fact that we are now -- we now don't -- do not make it mandatory, gives me great pause for thought.
And I wanted to ask you, Secretary Ortiz Jones, I know that Maxwell Air Force Base is home of Air University. We're very proud of that. But during the pandemic, how did -- how did the COVID-19 affect military installation and your personnel, moving personnel in and out? And what lessons were learned in terms of that?
And I also wanted to ask your thoughts about what the, you know, reversal of policy not requiring a vaccination has done, with respect to the morale culture of -- of the service?
Representative, thank you for your support for Maxwell Air Force Base. To your immediate question about how did we deal with that, I mean as you know, we have many international students. And so one of the things that -- I'm really proud of the team -- did, early on is, as soon as those international students arrived on base, in that first week, if they were not already vaccinated, we offered them the vaccine.
We also followed all of the -- the practices, as recommended by the CDC, to ensure that we could continue functioning, so, masking, social, distancing, increasing awareness, contact tracing. And then, when folks were identified as being symptomatic, you know, quarantining and taking all the measures, again, that could ensure those classes could -- could continue and at the base could function as -- as intended.
So again, lots of lessons learned about, you know, when you -- when you vaccinate and follow the CDC guidance, there are, you know, you can continue to execute mission, as was done at Maxwell Air Force Base, as was done throughout the Department of the Air Force enterprise.
You know, has it -- I know that my time is drawing near. And I really am curious to know if there's been any increase in military personnel refusal to receive other mandatory vaccinations, like hepatitis, like measles, tetanus. Have you seen that happen? And if so, how do you -- how are you addressing it?
Representative, what we have seen, at this point, are -- there are four cases where individuals submitted a religious accommodation request for COVID and other vaccines. And so it's -- it's not a significant uptake. That is a manageable number. And again, there is a process in place to ensure that folks are one, aware of that process, provide the sufficient information, so those can be reviewed -- can be reviewed accordingly.
If I -- if I may say, you know, to -- readiness has been addressed here a number of times. And one thing I would offer for -- for the committee's consideration is, when we talk about, you know, medical readiness, one of those things is, our family members, our service members ability to access health care.
And a lot of that is tied to medical providers that don't take TRICARE. So I would recommend for this committee, if you -- if you really focus on medical care, you would look at steps to encourage medical providers to accept TRICARE. And that's directly related to the future readiness of the force. We know a lot of the service members of the future are dependents of today.
And when they have better access to health care, through more TRICARE providers, they will be a healthier pipeline into our service.
So, a -- a request to please encourage your medical providers to accept TRICARE.
The gentlewoman's time has expired. I want to thank all of our witnesses for being with us today. We're off to a great start with the Military Personnel Subcommittee. I intend for this subcommittee to be the most active of all of the subcommittees, with the help of the ranking member. And we're off to a good start today, on an important topic.
So with there being no further business, this subcommittee stands adjourned.
List of Panel Members
REP. JIM BANKS (R-IND.), CHAIRMAN
REP. ELISE STEFANIK (R-N.Y.)
REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FLA.)
REP. JACK BERGMAN (R-MICH.)
REP. MICHAEL WALTZ (R-FLA.)
REP. BRAD FINSTAD (R-MINN.)
REP. JAMES MOYLAN (R-GUAM)
REP. MARK ALFORD (R-MO.)
REP. CORY MILLS (R-FLA.)
REP. MIKE ROGERS (R-ALA.), EX-OFFICIO
REP. ANDY KIM (D-N.J.), RANKING MEMBER
REP. CHRISSY HOULAHAN (D-PA.)
REP. VERONICA ESCOBAR (D-TEXAS)
REP. MARILYN STRICKLAND (D-WASH.)
REP. JILL TOKUDA (D-HAWAII)
REP. DON DAVIS (D-N.C.)
REP. TERRI SEWELL (D-ALA.)
REP. STEVEN HORSFORD (D-NEV.)
REP. ADAM SMITH (D-WASH), EX-OFFICIO
DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE UNDER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR PERSONNEL AND READINESS GILBERT CISNEROS
DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY UNDER SECRETARY OF THE ARMY GABE CAMARILLO
DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY UNDER SECRETARY OF THE NAVY ERIK RAVEN
DEPARTMENT OF THE AIR FORCE UNDER SECRETARY OF THE AIR FORCE GINA JONES
28 February 2023
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