Thirty people filed into a lounge area of a building not far from the Tinker Air Force Base chapel in Oklahoma last September. They sat for roughly an hour as an increasingly impatient lieutenant colonel, a doctor who frequently checked his watch, tried to answer questions from skeptics of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to participants.
What he didn't realize is that his briefing would help forge an underground support network for service members who had refused the vaccine, putting like-minded troops in one room. The meeting was intended to convince those who were skeptical to get the vaccine, but two airmen who attended said it instead helped them find allies and compatriots in their drive to remain unvaccinated.
"I thank God every day that they had this briefing and [it] wasn't just a one-on-one thing," one of the attendees, an Air Force captain, told Military.com.
After the Air Force doctor finished his presentation and had left, the captain and many of the other attendees stayed behind to compare notes, chuckling at the presentation and joking that the doctor had nothing prepared but "what the Air Force was telling him to say."
The captain saw an opportunity: Here was a group of airmen who thought as he did.
"I jotted down ranks and names and looked them up in the email thing later," he said. "I think a big part of what's going on right now is they're trying to isolate us; they're trying to make us feel like we're the only one and we are bad guys."
The result would be email lists that would help them stay in touch and support one another. Some would also go on to join closed Facebook groups with members numbering in the thousands from every service; they use coded language and secrecy trying to stay ahead of the social network's efforts to eliminate misinformation.
While the counseling session is only one instance in a large service and even larger military, the failed briefing helps illustrate how communities of vaccine refusers in the military operate -- looking to set up private, closed groups where they can exchange tips, news and information away from the prying eyes of military leaders and the larger public.
For this story, Military.com spoke with three service members who are currently serving in the Air Force. All of their names are being withheld to protect their identities out of concern over retribution from their superiors.
All three spoke about why they are refusing the vaccine and, although their specific reasons varied, all cited religious objections to the shot and filed for religious exemptions with the Air Force.
Throughout the military, there are more than 15,000 service members who have refused to comply with the vaccine mandate; about 12,000 religious exemption requests have been filed. To date, only the Marine Corps has approved any of those requests -- three in the last month out of more than 3,000.
An airman who also attended the Tinker briefing found the opportunity to meet others who were refusing the vaccine liberating.
"It really made me feel I am not the only one ... that I'm not this fringe person," the airman said.
From that meeting sprung an email list of about 20 people that the captain maintains for service members trying to avoid the vaccine like him. The group acts as a kind of support network for people where they exchange details about filing legal documents with the military, information about vaccines, and emotional support.
"I think that's the reason God put me in this position to be in the military for this very moment -- so I can support those other people who want to stand by their religious convictions," the captain said.
The airman, who is part of the email group, said that one of the members is Lt. Col.Theresa Long, an Alabama-based Army surgeon who has gained notoriety for her willingness to speak out publicly against the COVID-19 vaccine. Long's opposition to the vaccine has been amplified by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and legal filings she's made on behalf of a now-dismissed lawsuit against the military's vaccine mandate. However, her claims are filled with errors and inaccuracies. For example, in the affidavit she filed with the Colorado Federal Court, she claimed that the vaccines contain the chemical polyethylene glycol.
"Polyethylene Glycol is the active ingredient in antifreeze," Long wrote in the affidavit. "I cannot discern what form of alchemy Pfizer and the FDA have discovered that would make antifreeze into a healthful cure to the human body."
The active ingredient in antifreeze is actually ethylene glycol. Meanwhile, polyethylene glycol, as many health department fact sheets note, is a common ingredient found in pharmaceutical and cosmetic products
Email lists such as this are an example of the silos and closed ecosystems in which service members like the captain and the airman reside and traffic in tactics, documents and what they believe to be vaccine information.
"I have gotten a lot of information from that small group that has been really, really useful in this whole process, and a lot of that information has further validated what I already believed myself and validated the research that I've already done myself," the airman said.
The captain said that he keeps the list's members obscured even from each other. "When I send an email to everybody, I blind carbon copy it to the whole group, so that nobody else knows who else is in the group," he explained.
"My friend, who's stationed on the other side of the country, she knows a few handful[s] of people and so she's got her own little group going on," the captain said.
The captain is also a member of a large Facebook group that is similarly closed off where, according to two service members, people are able to exchange information on efforts to refuse the vaccine.
"A lot of people ... post their denials on there so we can see, 'Hey, yeah, these all look the same,'" the captain said. The similar wording of the denial letters is a common objection among refusers, who claim the similarity is evidence that the military is not actually individually reviewing exemption requests.
It's also where the captain met a technical sergeant who has been in the Air Force for 14 years, first as an active-duty service member and, for the last 10 years, as a reservist.
The sergeant said the Facebook group has about 7,000 members from all the military branches and includes spouses. She added that the group has taken very active measures to conceal itself and obscure its purpose.
"The group is worded differently," she explained. "I don't want to say it. … I don't know if they've caught on to it on Facebook.
"When you're in the group, when you're typing out certain things, you have to refer to them as different things," the sergeant said. "You can't say 'vaccine mandate' or 'appeal' or any keywords because Facebook does filter everything extremely well these days."
Neither the captain nor sergeant would disclose the name of the group to Military.com, but they said it has been helpful in providing them everything from forms to regulations to cite and arguments to make.
The sergeant said that "one of the No. 1 topics in our group" has been how to rebut the argument that service members have previously received vaccines either made from or developed with aborted fetal cell lines, although none of the COVID-19 vaccines contains fetal cells.
As the military has begun separations over failure to comply with the mandate, this group has also become a professional resource. The captain said that many of the conversations revolve around areas and companies that will hire separated service members.
Facebook groups have served as a way to connect like-minded service members who would have otherwise never met. That's the case for the captain and sergeant -- two people who serve in different states and duty statuses. Meanwhile, the airman said that finding out that the captain, who is in his unit, is also a vaccine refuser has been helpful to him in other ways.
"We found a lot of common ground and...he's somebody that I go to for personal issues, things like mentorship and stuff like that," the airman said.
Ultimately, there is probably nothing that the lieutenant colonel could have said that September afternoon to sway the audience of skeptics.
"Unless this doctor said, 'No, this vaccine has no relation to aborted fetal cells,' or 'No, this vaccine is not an mRNA vaccine,' there's nothing for him to convince me [of]," the captain explained.
"Whatever response they come at me with, I'm not going to agree with it because the response is obviously going to be: We're going to keep the mandate; you gotta get it," the sergeant said.
The captain also said that having a chaplain make the argument for vaccinations wouldn't have been any more helpful. "Would it necessarily change our minds? No, but I don't think we would have gone in there and just plugged our ears while the chaplain talks," he explained.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.