WASHINGTON — US forces are no longer required to receive the coronavirus vaccine after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin formally rescinded his August 2021 mandate late Tuesday — too late for thousands of service members booted from the ranks for refusing the jab.
The requirement was sacrificed to help secure Republican support for the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which sets Pentagon spending and policy priorities for each fiscal year.
“No individuals currently serving in the armed forces shall be separated solely on the basis of their refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccination if they sought an accommodation on religious, administrative or medical grounds,” Austin wrote in a memorandum to the force.
Previously, all US service members — active-duty and reserve — had to receive the vaccine or face separation. Thousands of troops resisted the mandate by requesting medical and religious exemptions, but only some were approved.
Nearly 8,500 active-duty, reserve and National Guard service members were discharged for refusing to comply with the order since it was issued – including 1,841 soldiers, 3,717 Marines, 834 airmen and 2,041 sailors, according to the latest tallies reported by the services.
Austin said in the memorandum that the vaccination requirement only ended because of Congress.Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Across all branches, more than 17,000 troops requested religious exemptions to the vaccine, but just 864 were approved. It’s unclear how many medical-exemption requests were made, but the services approved about 816.
While vaccine refusers may now stay in the service, military commanders will keep their ability to consider immunization status “in making deployment, assignment and other operational decisions,” such as travel to countries that require vaccines for entry.
Austin made clear Tuesday that he was only rescinding his order because he was forced by Congress. Despite ending the mandate, the Pentagon “will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all service members,” he said.
“Vaccination enhances operational readiness and protects the Force,” Austin wrote. “All commanders have the responsibility and authority to preserve the department’s compelling interests in mission accomplishment.”
In addition to reversing the mandate, Austin ordered each service branch to remove “any adverse actions solely associated with denials” of exemption requests — such as letters of reprimand — from all service records.
“The secretaries of the military departments will further cease any ongoing reviews of current service member religious, administrative or medical accommodation requests solely for exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine or appeals of denials of such requests.”
Troops previously kicked out for refusing the vaccine will not be reinstated. But they can now contact their discharge review board to request a correction to their personnel records, “including records regarding the characterization of their discharge,” Austin said.
“For service members administratively discharged on the sole basis that the service member failed to obey a lawful order to receive a vaccine for COVID-19, the department is precluded by law from awarding any characterization less than a general (under honorable conditions) discharge,” he said.
The removal of the mandate was made to get Republican support for the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.Getty Images/iStockphoto
To date, about 96% of US troops have received the coronavirus vaccination, Austin said. In total, 2,000,295 active duty, Reserve and National Guard troops were fully vaccinated as of Dec. 20, while another 26,145 had received at least one dose, according to the Pentagon.
“The department’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts will leave a lasting legacy in the many lives we save, the world-class force we have been able to field and the high level of readiness we have maintained amidst difficult public health conditions.”