‘What Is The Point?’: Pentagon Mulling Discharges For Unvaccinated Troops Who Didn’t Seek Exemptions

Screenshot // 2 28 23 MILPERS Hearing // YouTube

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • The Department of Defense (DOD) is mulling moving forward with discharges for some servicemembers who did not seek exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to a Feb. 24 letter from the Office of the Secretary of Defense viewed by the Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • As of Friday, the services have rescinded their vaccination orders as required by Congress.
  • “It’s very important that our service members go and follow orders when they are lawful,” Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros told Republican Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana Tuesday.

The military is considering discharging servicemembers who did not seek a medical or religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine and received adverse actions to their military records, according to a letter to Republican Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana and Mike Rogers of Alabama viewed by the Daily Caller News Foundation and testimony provided to Congress on Tuesday.

Although the military services have rolled back their COVID-19 vaccine requirements and halted discharges of unvaccinated members after Congress legislated the end of the department-wide mandate, the Department of Defense is mulling moving forward with separations if members did not seek religious or medical exemptions, according to a Feb. 24 letter from the Office of the Secretary of Defense viewed by the DCNF. When pressed for an explanation at a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday, service leaders said vaccine refusal cases are still being dealt with on an individual basis.

“Appropriate officials within the military services continue to review cases on an individual basis to determine appropriate action for service members who did not submit an exemption or accommodation request, remained unvaccinated, and refused a lawful order to take the vaccine,” the letter said. (RELATED: The Military Vaccine Mandate Has Been Overturned, But Unvaccinated Troops Still Risk Reprisal)

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin formally rescinded the order to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 10 as directed by Congress in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed in December. In the weeks following, each military service branch has formulated guidance echoing the rescission.

“It’s very important that our service members go and follow orders when they are lawful,” Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros said in response to a question from Banks questioning the reasoning behind continued review.

“What is the point if we rescinded the mandate?” Banks asked.

“The situation that you just described it was members who refused the vaccine, disobeyed a lawful order,” Cisneros continued. “Services are going through a process to look at that and evaluate what needs to be done in those situations.”

He said several thousand members did not seek any accommodations.

Roughly 8,400 members were discharged, but in 2022 several legal cases blocked the services from issuing discharges to the remainder of unvaccinated servicemembers, and the Army voluntarily paused discharges.

Soldiers, sailors and airmen who have already been discharged have the opportunity to petition their service branch to change the characterization of their discharge to honorable, according to guidance issued by each service.

However, those who bucked orders to receive the vaccine and did not seek medical or religious accommodations could have violations of the military justice code and other disciplinary consequences ingrained on their records, Under Secretary of the Army Gabe Camarillo said. Those violations would in normal circumstances lead to discharge, he explained.

Representatives from the Navy and Air Force echoed Camarillo’s explanation.

“Aggravating factors” beyond sole refusal to receive the vaccine will not be able to scrub their files of all adverse actions, Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz-Jones said.

In a letter to DOD from earlier in February, Banks and Rogers asked the department to provide clarity on each service’s process for removing the vaccine mandate and reintegrating unvaccinated members into the force. They asked whether the rescission memos implied that only members who submitted accommodation requests are exempt from the vaccine in the future.

“No Service members currently serving will be separated based solely on their refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, if they sought an accommodation based on religious, administrative, or medical grounds,” the Friday response said.

“The department has complied with the NDAA requirements,” Cisneros said in his opening statements. He reiterated that no vaccination requirement exists for new military accessions — enlisted, officers, cadets and other programs — or retention.

“One of the most important things we learned is the vaccine does work,” Cisneros said.

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