Air Force May Have Let Unqualified Officers Issue Dishonorable Discharges To Unvaxxed Airmen

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • The Air Force’s updated discharge policy contains a discrepancy with Department of Defense policy, a government watchdog found in a report Thursday.
  • Air Force officials may have allowed underqualified personnel to make decisions on whether to characterize a servicemember’s discharge as honorable or dishonorable.
  • The conflicting policy may have affected airmen discharged over the COVID-19 mandate.

The Air Force failed to comply with the Department of Defense’s (DOD) standards for deciding whether to characterize dischargers as honorable or dishonorable, a government watchdog found.

DOD policy requires superior officers, with a rating of E-7 or higher, to review individual cases and make a final decision on discharging a service member under honorable, neutral or dishonorable conditions, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a Thursday report. However, the Air Force allowed junior noncommissioned officers to participate in those decisions, potentially affecting airmen discharged over the COVID-19 mandate.

“Provisions in the Air Force’s policy for noncommissioned officer board member qualifications conflict and one is inconsistent with DOD policy, which may lead to differing implementation of board processes,” GAO said. (RELATED: ‘Determined To Change’: Diversity A Main Goal Of New Air Force Research Partnership)

“Being separated from the armed forces for misconduct, unsatisfactory performance, or other reasons can have lifelong implications,” to include being denied veterans’ education and health care benefits and future employment, GAO wrote.

When a member of the military faces discharge, the member can request the service convene an “administrative separation board” to review the member’s case, according to GAO. The separation board makes the call whether to characterize the conditions surrounding the member’s departure from the military as “honorable,” “general (under honorable conditions)” or “other than honorable.”

The discrepancy could include members of the Air Force who refused the COVID-19 vaccine and were progressing through the discharge process between June 24, when the Air Force last updated its policy, and July 27, when a district judge blocked the Air Force from removing servicemembers for vaccine-related reasons.

The Air Force discharged 162 airmen between June 27 and July 11, department fact sheets show. In April, Air Force personnel leaders said roughly 70% of unvaccinated airmen received general discharges, MilitaryTimes reported.

The Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Space Force issue similar guidance regarding the process for creating separation boards, including determining who sits on the board, GAO said. While most of the policies are consistent with DOD policy and any relevant legislation, one provision in the Air Force’s policy diverged from overarching DOD rules.

The DOD rule, dated Jan. 27, 2014, and last updated on June 23, 2022, requires that any noncommissioned officer appointed to a serve as a voting member on a separation board hold an E-7, equivalent to a master sergeant, or higher rank.

However, the Air Force’s version of the policy, last updated June 24, contains two conflicting rules, GAO found. One rule mandates that any noncommissioned officer may serve on the board as long as the office outranks the servicemember facing discharge, and another says the officer must rank at an E-7 or higher.

FORT CAMPBELL, KY - JULY 06: U.S. Army Col. Scott D. Wilkinson delivers a message to members of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division prior to their departure for Europe on July 6, 2022 in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

FORT CAMPBELL, KY – JULY 06: U.S. Army Col. Scott D. Wilkinson delivers a message to members of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division prior to their departure for Europe on July 6, 2022 in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

A guide for separating enlisted airmen the latest policy superseded does not appear to contain conflicting instructions.

Air Force officials told GAO the discrepancy “may have been an oversight made” during the revision process in 2022.

Until the discrepancy is resolved, “the Air Force risks having board results overturned if voting members are not appointed in a manner that is consistent with the grade requirements specified in DOD policy,” GAO said.

Armed forces conduct legal reviews of each separation decision, representatives told GAO, and discharged servicemembers still have the right to request a post-separation inquiry.

DOD did not provide GAO with a comment. The Air Force did not immediately respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.

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