'Threat to their careers'? Military officers fighting vaccine mandate want to stay anonymous

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

PENSACOLA — A telephone hearing on all outstanding motions in the federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida by 16 unnamed military personnel challenging the U.S. military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate was scheduled for Wednesday of this week, according to the latest court filings in the case.

Plaintiffs in the case, filed against Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and a number of other federal government officials, include two Eglin Air Force Base officers, an officer stationed at Hurlburt Field and a couple other military personnel with local connections.

The hearing set to consider legal arguments and not any issues surrounding evidence in the case, was ordered by U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, who was assigned to the case after Judges T. Kent Wetherell II and M. Casey Rodgers recused themselves.

Where it started:Eglin AFB officers part of federal court challenge to military COVID vaccine mandate

Related story:COVID vaccine mandate lawsuit: Air Force officers argue shots are 'unproven,' 'unnecessary'

Wetherell recused himself because he and his wife own stock in Pfizer, one of the pharmaceutical companies offering a COVID-19 vaccine. Rodgers did not specify in her recusal why she took that action.

Among the issues looming in the case, according to recent filings, is wrangling over whether the plaintiffs should be allowed to proceed anonymously.

In an Oct. 29 filing, the plaintiffs' attorneys — all of whom are associated with the Texas-based nonprofit organization Defending the Republic, operated by former Donald Trump attorney Sidney Powell — contend that their clients should be allowed to "retain their privacy, in light of the specific medical issues implicated in this matter, and also ... the very real potential for retaliation, harassment, punishment, and overall threat to their careers for filing this suit."

In the filing, the plaintiff's attorneys reference a ruling in a 2011 case arising out of incidents in 2002 and 2003 in which underage girls visiting Panama City and Panama City Beach were filmed naked, or nearly so, with some engaging in sexual acts, by crews with the "Girls Gone Wild" adult entertainment franchise.

Newly graduated members of the Eglin Air Force Base honor guard stand in formation in masks at last week's graduation ceremony. Meanwhile, a court challenge to a requirement for military members to be vaccinated against COVID-19 winds its way through federal court in Pensacola.

As the case moved through the court system, the girls sought to proceed anonymously. Their motion was denied in the U.S. District Court in Pensacola, but that ruling was subsequently vacated in a ruling from the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Using language from that ruling, attorneys for the plaintiffs in the vaccine case note in their Oct. 29 filing that the 11th Circuit decision read, in part, that courts “should carefully review all the circumstances of a given case and then decide whether the customary practice of disclosing the plaintiff's identity should yield to the plaintiff's privacy concerns.”

Bolstering that argument, the plaintiff's attorneys also note that some of the unnamed plaintiffs have medical conditions including a prior COVID-19 infection to a history with cancer that includes ongoing effects from chemotherapy.

The filing does note, however, that government attorneys have indicated that they have no objection to allowing one of the female plaintiffs to proceed anonymously due to a specific medical issue.

Related story:COVID vaccine mandate lawsuit: Air Force officers argue shots are 'unproven,' 'unnecessary'

'It's a personal choice':DoD civilians, contractors protest COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Elsewhere in the filing, the plaintiffs' attorneys argue that the plaintiffs need privacy protection because they face adverse consequences that the defendants have not indicated will be halted as legal proceedings continue.

For example, according to the filing, one plaintiff has been “informed that (he) will face administrative action, including non-promotion status to separation from the Army” if he doesn't get the vaccine.

Another plaintiff, the filing notes, says he is “facing a dishonorable discharge or separation as a risk due to refusing the mandate of COVID-19 vaccination.”

And another plaintiff faces “the loss of retirement, veterans and other governmental benefits,” according to the filing.

Beyond that, the filing notes that another plaintiff has some privacy rights in connection with concerns that the vaccine mandate "would require him to violate his belief that his body is 'a temple of the Holy Spirit.'”

Protest

The Oct. 29 filing is a response to an Oct. 20 filing by Department of Justice attorneys in which they contend that the "(p)laintiffs have not met their burden of demonstrating exceptional circumstances that would justify their use of pseudonyms in this case."

The DOJ attorneys cite a previous federal court rulings that “in only a very few cases challenging governmental activity can anonymity be justified.”

The filing also questions the need for anonymity in connection with religious exemption applications to avoid getting the COVID-19 vaccine, which 11 of the 16 plaintiffs either have filed or plan to file, according to the Oct. 20 document.

" ... (I)t is not apparent why litigation by the eleven Plaintiffs who submitted or plan to submit religious exemption requests would warrant proceeding anonymously," the DOJ attorneys contend.

In other news related to the military mandate for COVID-19 vaccination, Air Force Brig. Gen. Scott Cain, commander of Eglin Air Force Base, said in a recent video on the installation's Facebook page that "our military vaccination campaign has been very successful, and now we're mostly working through (applications for) exemptions."

Cain also referenced the requirement for Department of Defense civilian employees, a number of whom work at Eglin, to be vaccinated. He told them that forms are available for any of those employees who want to file for religious or medical exemptions to the vaccine requirement.