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'Unseen and unheard': Military families abroad struggle to gain access to vaccinations

Military families living abroad question if they’ve been forgotten as vaccinations increase across the U.S., and they're left without answers.
/ Source: TODAY

For the Melkus family from Colorado, Europe is a dream military duty station.

“Being stationed in Europe has been a wonderful opportunity that we will be forever grateful for,” Callie Melkus, whose husband is stationed at Joint Multinational Readiness Center-Hohenfels in Germany, told TODAY Health.

But for Melkus and more than 70,000 other Americans, being stationed in Europe means being fully reliant on the Department of Defense (DOD) for health care and vaccines.

“We don’t have the option of contacting the county health department or a civilian pharmacy as we would in the States,” she shared. “Leadership acknowledges the frustration and I do believe they are trying to vaccinate soldiers and families as quickly as possible, but I have to question where and how the ball was dropped on this issue.”

Melkus referenced President Biden’s promise to make all American adults eligible for a vaccine by May 1.

“I fear this is not true for military families living overseas,” she said.

Mae Morgan, also located in Germany, is an Army spouse who is considered high-risk. Right now, in her home state of Virginia, she would meet eligibility for vaccination. Instead, she is in the dark about when that opportunity might come.

'Unseen and unheard'

Melkus and Morgan are part of a growing population stationed in Europe asking for answers.

“We feel so unseen and so unheard here,” Morgan shared. “People in the States are getting the opportunity to turn down the vaccine when we aren’t even given the option or a timeline on when to even get that option. Being in a foreign country is hard right now and seeing that the Army isn’t taking care of their own is even harder.”

In addition to active duty troops, an estimated 20,000 permanent DOD civilians who support forces abroad also rely on the DOD for health care.

Last week, Germany extended its lockdown until April 18 to try to curb a third wave of COVID-19. On Sunday, amid surging COVID-19 cases in France, doctors warned ICUs in Paris could be overwhelmed. In Italy, a nationwide lockdown went into effect on March 15 through Easter weekend.

“My husband will be leaving the country (Germany) next month and at this time is not vaccinated,” Melkus said. “That worries me. Soldiers are first responders and should have access to the vaccine.”

In Pisa, Italy, Air Force spouse Victoria Furnary has no idea when she will have access to the vaccine.

"They have no plans to do another round (of vaccinations) anytime soon,” she shared. "I am in group B ... they have no known dates for more vaccines to arrive."

In a March 4 memorandum, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin stated defeating COVID-19 was a top priority, but with no clear vaccine timeline, military families are questioning the weight of this promise.

“The DOD will continue to act boldly and quickly to support federal government efforts to defeat the disease, defend the force against it and work with our domestic and international partners to protect our nation from potential novel and deadly viruses of the future,” the memorandum stated. “The DOD will continue to give direct support to the government’s vaccination efforts and encourage military personnel to get the vaccine to remain ready to protect the nation globally. Both challenges demand an aggressive DOD effort to inform and educate people about protective measures and the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines.”

Desperate for answers

Melkus reached out to Congressman Doug Lamborn, who represents her home state’s congressional district in Colorado. The Army spouse said her plea was not for herself, but to bring light to the situation soldiers and high-risk populations are facing overseas.

“Soldiers deserve to be vaccinated. Family members who have been deemed high-risk by our clinics deserve to have access to the vaccine," she wrote in a letter to Lamborn.

Desperate for answers, Callie Melkus wrote her home state's U.S. representative in early March.Courtesy Callie Melkus

Congressman Lamborn’s office replied to Melkus stating they have received similar letters from other families stationed overseas and have reached out to the DOD to resolve the issue. They had not received a response at the time of publication.

Families interviewed acknowledged that base leadership has provided weekly updates through virtual town halls, but little information about how or when vaccines will arrive has been relayed.

“Our leadership is doing the best they can at keeping us informed, but they can’t provide us with information that they haven’t been provided by the DOD,” Bailey Cummins, an Army spouse in Grafenwöhr, Germany said. “I feel forgotten and upset by that, especially since we are overseas due to military orders not of our own choosing.”

Cummins also told TODAY that some military spouses were paying thousands of dollars out of pocket to fly back to the U.S. to their states of residence, where they are legal residents and pay taxes, to get vaccinated, but this is not feasible for many people.

"This is not an option for a majority of military families as the cost of living in Europe is high, flights home are thousands of dollars, and we incurred thousands of dollars of non-reimbursable expenses from our move overseas," she explained.

In a Facebook Live town hall in mid-March hosted by Colonel Christopher Danbeck, commander of U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria, the governing body of four Army installations across Germany, repeated questions for the specific number of vaccines administered went unanswered.

TODAY's request for comment from U.S. Army Bavaria was directed to Regional Health Command Europe, which provides health services in support of forces in the U.S. Army Europe, Africa and United States Army Central. Regional Health Command Europe directed TODAY to U.S. European Command, located in Germany.

"While there’s been some disparity in numbers of vaccines distributed in the theater, we will continue to see an increase in distribution in the coming weeks," a U.S. European Command spokesperson told TODAY. "All vaccines are being distributed in accordance with the DOD schema, so military family members in the U.S. European Command region are being vaccinated as they become eligible when their installation moves to their tier in the prioritized distribution plan. We are aware of the concerns and frustrations that some personnel have expressed and we are addressing those questions with appropriate DOD officials."

The most recent vaccine update from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the largest U.S. hospital overseas, stated:

“Please keep in mind that we still have a ways to go to complete vaccinations for this population of individuals, but as we continue to receive more vaccine, we’ll move through this group as quickly as possible to begin vaccinating our healthy population,” the medical center’s Facebook page update stated. “Our senior military leaders here in Europe are working very hard with Department of the Army to get us more vaccine.”

Lieutenant General Ronald Place, director of Defense Health Agency, which supports uniformed services health care, assured media at a briefing on March 26 that the military's vaccine supply chain is working well.

"Based upon current supply and vaccination rate projections, I'm confident we'll open vaccinations to every eligible person at almost all military installations on or before May 1st, consistent with the President's March 11th pledge to all Americans," he said. "I speak with military medical commanders around the world every week and work through the issues they are confronting for vaccinations. We exchange best practices and refine our communications efforts based on what our leaders on the front lines share with us."

TODAY reached out to the DOD for further comment and they shared the following statement via a spokesperson:

“We understand the frustrations felt by those who have waited patiently to be vaccinated and in some cases are still waiting. They should know that we are working strenuously to ensure new vaccines are being expeditiously provided to all our forces, wherever they may be.”

For families overseas, performative promises don't seem like enough.

“I acknowledge that this is an extremely complex problem and there are so many more moving parts than I can comprehend,” Melkus said. “I really feel like the military families in Europe are just looking for honesty and transparency with the vaccine timeline. If our military leaders in Europe could provide that, it would alleviate a lot of the anxiety and frustration while waiting for vaccines to arrive in Europe.”

This story was updated to include a statement from the DOD.