EXCLUSIVE: Air Force Begs Troops Booted Over COVID-19 Vax To Come Back

(Photo by AIZAR RALDES/AFP via Getty Images)

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • The U.S. Air Force sent a letter telling an airman booted from the service for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine the airman could seek a correction to his service records and re-enter the force, according to a photo of the letter obtained by the DCNF.
  • The letter mirrors similar ones recently mailed to 1,900 Army soldiers discharged for the same reason.
  • Gilbert Cisneros, the former DOD official in charge of personnel, told Congress in February troops had been kicked out for “refusing a lawful order.”

The U.S. Air Force sent out a letter telling an airman booted from the service over the now-rescinded COVID-19 vaccine mandate of an opportunity to rejoin the service, mirroring similar letters sent to former Army service members, according to a copy of one Air Force letter obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation.

A former Air Force service member who was separated for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine received the letter Sunday addressed with the recipient’s name, according to a source familiar with the matter. The letter tells former airmen they can request to have their service records amended to show that they received honorable discharges and seek reentry into the service amidst the service’s failure to meet recruiting goals.

“Our records indicate you separated from military service as a result of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for members of the Armed Forces, which was rescinded by the Secretary of Defense on January 10, 2023 and by the Secretary of the Air Force on January 23, 2023,” the letter reads. “Should you desire to request consideration of a correction to your personnel records, including records regarding the characterization of your discharge, you may submit a request to the Air Force Discharge Review Board or the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records.”

The letter then recommended Air Force veterans wishing to rejoin the active service to contact a local recruiter. It could not be determined exactly how many letters were sent or in what window of time, and the Air Force did not respond to the DCNF’s request for comment. (RELATED: Army Calls Up Soldiers Last Minute, Drops Requirements For Recruiting Duty In Shortage-Induced Panic)

However, the Air Force letter mirrors similar notices sent to U.S. Army soldiers discharged for the same reason. The Army sent out approximately 1,900 letters to former soldiers discharged over COVID-19 vaccine refusal, a spokesperson confirmed to the DCNF.

Between February 2022 and January 2023, when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin officially rescinded the vaccine mandate, the Army discharged 1,903 active duty soldiers for refusing the vaccine, Maj. Shahin Uddin, an Army spokesperson, told the DCNF.

Uddin confirmed the Army letter, which first circulated on social media, as authentic to the DCNF. It was the first time the Army directly reached out to the former soldiers by sending letters, he said.

“It is too early to determine as the letters were only recently sent out,” Uddin said, referring to the letters’ success in bringing former soldiers back into active service. Only 19 of those separated for vaccine refusal have rejoined as of Sept. 9. “However this is part of the overall COVID mandate recession process mandated by Congress,” Uddin said.

Both the Army and Air Force missed recruiting goals for the fiscal year 2023 in what has become the worst recruiting crisis since the institution of the all-volunteer military.

Congress mandated the Pentagon to overturn the COVID-19 vaccine mandate in the 2023 defense bill but did not include remedies for service members discharged or in the process of seeking exemptions. Army policy from February confirms that the option for former soldiers to seek corrections to their service records.

Service officials said petitions would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis at the time in testimony to Congress.

In a February hearing, Department of Defense (DOD) and service officials said those who had been kicked out from the military could seek to have their service records upgraded, making them eligible for certain post-service benefits not available to people with other than honorable discharges.

“For those that have already separated and would still like to, for example, update their file, they would have to go through the Discharge Review Board,” then-Undersecretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz-Jones told the House Armed Services Committee in February.

Air Force veterans who received general discharges instead of honorable ones and want to reenter the service would likewise have to petition for their discharge characterization to be upgraded, she said. “And once they were able to do that, if they do that successfully, then they can talk to a recruiter, assuming they met accession standards, would be able to apply to come back in.” Ortiz-Jones said 610 airmen were separated for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine.

Gilbert Cisneros, the former DOD official in charge of personnel, told Congress troops had been kicked out for “refusing a lawful order.”

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