The Department of Defense (DOD) officially scrapped the requirement that all members of the armed forces be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 on Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin introduced the mandate in August 2021 as Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccines were expected to become available, citing the impact of rising case numbers on the military’s readiness. However, after more than a year of legal challenges to the mandate and at least 8,400 discharges for refusing the vaccine, Congress instructed Austin to reverse course in the fiscal year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
“I am deeply proud of the department’s work to combat the coronavirus disease 2019,” Austin wrote in a Jan. 10, 2022 memo overturning the mandate. “We have demonstrated the ability to support and defend the nation under the most trying of circumstances.
President Joe Biden signed the NDAA into law on Dec. 23, 2022, giving DOD 30 days to rescind the Aug. 24, 2021 memo and develop new guidance on troop vaccination.
“I hereby rescind that memorandum,” Austin wrote. He also overturned a subsequent instruction from November 2021 that reiterated the mandate for members of the National Guard and reserves. (RELATED: Pentagon Says Vaccine Mandate Repeal Applies To National Guard — Despite Army’s Contradicting Guidance)
DOD will continue to promote vaccination for all servicemembers, and vaccination status may factor into decisions on where a soldier is stationed and what duties he is assigned, the memo states. Experts have warned that service members who escaped discharge for refusing the vaccine still risk retaliation and could be booted anyway.
“This does nothing to address those pending discharge who did not submit a religious accommodation or who were improperly denied a religious or medical accommodation,” R. Davis Younts, an attorney representing several military members seeking religious exemptions, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
Congress’ directive did not require military branches to provide compensation for those discharged or had their careers harmed by refusing the mandate.
To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready Force. All FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective. They will protect us, and they will ensure we remain the most lethal and ready force in the world. (2/2) pic.twitter.com/R7q8bshAs5
— Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (@SecDef) August 9, 2021
DOD framed the vaccine requirement as critical to ensuring the health and lethality of the armed forces. However, opponents argued that service leaders did not adhere to policies allowing servicemembers to seek religious or medical exemption requests.
By the time the mandate was overturned, nearly every service faced a legal prohibition — usually as part of a religious liberty case — against discharging servicemembers, although they could still be blocked from deployment or other operational duties. Thousands waited in limbo as religious exemption requests were denied, and at least 8,400 have already been discharged, according to the latest data shared with the DCNF by the Department of Defense.
“Much trust and confidence in military leadership was lost as a result of the way DOD implemented the mandate,” retired Lt. Gen. Rod Bishop, president of Stand Together Against Racism and Radicalism in the Services, told the DCNF.
“Now is the time to turn our attention to ‘remedies’ and making those whose careers were harmed by the illegal actions implementing the vaccine mandate ‘whole’ by correcting their records and restoring them to the service of our nation, should they want to continue to serve,” Bishop said.
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