The Marine Corps’ top officer acknowledged on Saturday that the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate has been limiting recruitment in some parts of the country.

“There’s still myths and misbeliefs about the backstory behind it,” Commandant Gen. David Berger said during a panel discussion hosted by the Reagan National Defense Forum on public confidence in, and recruitment for, the military. “And it’s still having an impact in certain areas of the country on recruiting.”

Berger later told reporters at the event that the vaccine mandate especially has affected recruiting in the South, reported.

Following guidance from the Defense Department, the Marine Corps announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in September 2021. As of August, 3,299 Marines had been separated from the Corps for refusing the vaccine.

Marines who requested religious exemptions sued in federal court in 2021, arguing that the Marine Corps issued blanket denials of requests for accommodations. A federal judge in August blocked the Corps from separating any Marines who have sought religious accommodations.

The mandates for service members have been controversial in the political sphere, with many congressional Republicans and some Democrats calling for an end to them.

Almost half of Senate Republicans have threatened to withhold support for the annual defense authorization bill as long as the mandates remain in place. Despite mounting pressure from Congress, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has continued to stand by the mandate.

Berger defended the COVID-19 vaccine mandate as being necessary for the readiness of the force.

“That’s what you need to maintain a healthy unit that can deploy, on ship, ashore — it doesn’t matter,” he said on the panel in Simi Valley, California.

Berger also pointed out that service members are required to take nine other vaccines and that the COVID-19 vaccines have prevented deaths in the fleet.

“We haven’t had anybody die [of COVID] since April,” he said. “Zero. Units go out 100% vaccinated, ready. It’s critical to make sure we can do our job.”

The Marine Corps just barely made its recruiting goals for the active force and the Reserve for 2022, making it the only service other than the Space Force to do so. But these goals were adjusted ones: lower than initially planned thanks to higher-than-expected retention, according to Corps officials.

Recruiting has proven a challenge across the services in 2022, with top officials blaming issues ranging from a hot labor market to rising obesity to negative media portrayals of the military. Some recruiters also have complained that the rollout of a new health record system that screens recruits for medical issues makes it harder to recruit.

The ‘wokeness’ issue

Many letters to the editor and social media comments, and some conservatives in Congress and at think tanks, have maintained that “wokeness” in the military has dissuaded young people from serving.

But Berger on Saturday dismissed the idea that Marines are preoccupied with a perception of hyperliberalism in the force.

“The way to answer the question ‘How do you feel about it?’ is, ‘How do the Marines feel about it? How do the soldiers, sailors, airmen feel about it?’” he said in response to a moderator question. “I don’t see it. I don’t hear it. They’re not talking about it. It’s not a factor for them at all.”

“I don’t know about you all, but I don’t see a conversation or an impact of wokeism in the rank-and-file at all,” Berger continued.

Fellow panelist Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisconsin, cast doubt on the general’s assessment of troop sentiment.

“It doesn’t surprise me that the secretary or the commandant wouldn’t be hearing about this from the fleet, because if you’re sitting there in front of the commandant — I mean, you’re probably not going to get the most unvarnished answer,” the representative and former Marine said. “I could be wrong about that.”

Army veteran Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, cut in.

“Wait, I know Marines. Yes, he would,” she said with a laugh. “My dad was a Marine.”

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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