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Defense & National Security — Afghan evacuee flights to restart soon

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It’s Thursday, welcome to Overnight Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

The U.S. military expects to resume flights next week carrying Afghan evacuees to the United States following a three-week pause to administer measles vaccinations after several outbreaks of the illness.

We’ll break down the timeline, the number of people expected to come to the United States and how the U.S. military is handling it.

For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. Write to me with tips: emitchell@thehill.com.

Let’s get to it.

Flights to resume ‘in very near future’ for Afghan evacuees 

The head of U.S. Northern Command Gen. Glen VanHerck told reporters on Thursday that he “would anticipate that the flights will start here in the very near future,”

“Potentially, next week we could see something” due to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirement that evacuees wait for 21 days after vaccination so it can take effect, he said at the Pentagon via satellite video.

Why flights were stopped: The Biden administration earlier this month paused flights of Afghan evacuees to the U.S. after several measles outbreaks, leaving thousands waiting in bases abroad. The government set about vaccinating all evacuees against measles, mumps and rubella as well as the chicken pox. There have been 24 cases of measles, including 12 that are still active.

The vaccine progress: VanHerck said that 100 percent of the evacuees would be vaccinated against measles as of Thursday and about 84 percent are at least partially vaccinated against the coronavirus. He framed the three-week pause as beneficial to the fight against COVID-19, as it gave evacuees enough time to get their second shot. 

How many are coming?: He also said there are “slightly over” 14,000 Afghans being housed at “lily pad” sites overseas who are expected to come to the United States. 

Nearly all of the 53,000 Afghan evacuees spread out among eight military bases in the U.S., meanwhile, have received their required vaccinations, including against COVID-19, VanHerck noted.

Will there be enough space?: The Defense Department has a capacity to house 64,000 people, and the incoming Afghans would push the military over that limit. But with Afghans beginning to leave the bases and resettle, VanHerck didn’t anticipate additional bases would be needed.  

Slightly more than 4,000 evacuees have completed their medical and other screening processes at the U.S. bases and have been cleared to leave, while another 2,400 have already been vetted and left.

Read the full story here.

US troops suicides up 15 percent in 2020 

Suicides among U.S. troops rose 15 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to an annual report from the Pentagon released Thursday.

The new figures show that 580 U.S. service members died by suicide last year, a nearly 80-person increase from the 504 who died by suicide in 2019.

The figure for 2020, however, is lower than the 543 U.S. troops who reportedly died by suicide in 2018.

A ‘troubling’ trend: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the new numbers “troubling,” and said suicide prevention is “a paramount challenge” for the military.

“Suicide rates among our service members and military families are still too high, and the trends are not going in the right direction,” Austin said in a statement Thursday. 

“We must redouble our efforts to provide all of our people with the care and the resources they need, to reduce stigmas and barriers to care, and to ensure that our community uses simple safety measures and precautions to reduce the risk of future tragedies.”

A data breakdown: Alaska has been the site of several suicides, according to USA Today, with six in the first five months of the year. The newspaper reported that the Army has spent more than $200 million in an attempt to improve the quality of life at its bases in the state.

A study released in June found that more than 30,000 active-duty personnel and veterans of wars that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have died by suicide.

That number, the study noted, was almost three times as many service members who were killed in post-9/11 war operations.

Read the full story here.

Troops try to block Pentagon vaccine mandate in court 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan at the Rayburn House Office building on Capitol Hill on September 29, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Two service members filed a potential class action lawsuit against Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in an attempt to block him from requiring all troops receive a COVID-19 vaccine.  

Army Staff Sgt. Dan Robert and Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Hollie Mulvihill, who filed the complaint Aug. 17 in the U.S. District Court of Colorado, also want the Pentagon to create a vaccine exemption for those previously infected with the coronavirus as they already have “natural immunity.”

Their argument: The two, who are both based in North Carolina, argue that the Defense Department’s vaccine mandate “is in open violation” of the rights of service members and is unconstitutional.

Who is named in the suit: Austin is named as a defendant in the lawsuit as are Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The background: The Pentagon chief in late August ordered service members to “immediately begin” receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, with the military services setting the deadlines for the requirement.

The Pentagon has also made clear it would only require a COVID-19 vaccine that had full FDA approval, which the Pfizer shot received on Aug. 23.

On shaky group: But Robert and Mulvihill, who filed their complaint days prior to the FDA decision, base their argument on the Pfizer vaccine’s previous emergency-use authorization standing.

They also say they should be exempt from the mandate because they already caught and recovered from COVID-19.

Read the full story here.

Lawmakers ask Air Force to hold off on Space Command move 

Colorado lawmakers have asked the Air Force’s top civilian official to stop the relocation of U.S. Space Command from Colorado Springs to Huntsville, Ala., citing “irregularities” in the Trump-era decision.

Due to “irregularities of the selection process and the effects on national security, we request you pause all actions related to moving [U.S. Space Command] until thorough reviews” by the Defense Department inspector general and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) are finished, according to a Sept. 30 letter to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall signed by nearly all of the Colorado delegation and led by Sen. Michael Bennett (D).

The group argues that such a move “undermines our ability to respond to the threats in space and is disruptive to the current mission” and that “significant evidence exists” that former President Trump’s political considerations influenced the final decision to relocate the command in Alabama.

Past efforts: The letter is the latest push from lawmakers to urge the Biden administration to reconsider the Space Command move, a decision that came in the final days of the Trump administration.

Lawmakers have since been needling the White House and Pentagon to review the plan to move the command’s permanent headquarters from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs to the Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.

Read more on that  here.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

WHAT WE’RE READING

That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s defense and national security pages for the latest coverage. See you Friday.

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