The Pentagon has officially withdrawn the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for members of the U.S. Military per a new memo issued by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The announcement was widely anticipated after the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was signed into law on December 23, 2022 which contained a provision that eliminated the military vaccine mandate. Under the terms of the bill, the Defense Secretary had 30 days after it became law to formally rescind the vaccine mandate for troops.
President Biden had asked Austin to make the COVID vaccine mandatory for members of the military, and a memo was issued back in August 2021 announcing the military vaccine mandate. This was around the same time that Biden issued the federal employee vaccine mandate requiring all federal employees to get the COVID vaccination or request an exemption for religious reasons.
In August 2021, Biden issued the following statement:
I strongly support Secretary Austin’s message to the Force today on the Department of Defense’s plan to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for our service members not later than mid-September. Secretary Austin and I share an unshakable commitment to making sure our troops have every tool they need to do their jobs as safely as possible. These vaccines will save lives. Period. They are safe. They are effective. Over 350 million shots have been given in the United States alone. Being vaccinated will enable our service members to stay healthy, to better protect their families, and to ensure that our force is ready to operate anywhere in the world. We cannot let up in the fight against COVID-19, especially with the Delta variant spreading rapidly through unvaccinated populations. We are still on a wartime footing, and every American who is eligible should take immediate steps to get vaccinated right away. I am proud that our military women and men will continue to help lead the charge in the fight against this pandemic, as they so often do, by setting the example of keeping their fellow Americans safe.
Austin’s latest memo rescinding the military vaccine mandate states:
No individuals currently serrving in the Armed Forces shalll 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. The Military Departments will update the records of such individuals to remove any adverse actions solely associated with denials of such requests, including letters of reprimand. The Secretaries of 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.
The memo later adds:
Other standing Departmental policies, procedures, and processes regarding immunizations remain in effect. These include the ability off commanders to consider, as appropriate, the individual immunization status of personnel in making deployment, assignment, appropriate, the individual immunization status of personnel in making deployment, assignment, and other operational decisions, including when vaccination is required for travel to, or entry into, a foreign nation.
According to Department of Defense (DoD) data cited by Reuters, 3,717 Marines, 1,816 soldiers and 2,064 sailors have since been discharged for refusing to get vaccinated. Among other disciplinary measures, members of the military were threatened with loss of pay. Austin’s memo states:
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. Former Service members may petition their Military Department’s Discharge Review Boards and Boards for Correction of Military or Naval Records to Discharge Review Boards and Boards for Correction of Military or Naval Records to individually request a correction to their personnel records, including records regarding the characterization of their discharge.
DoD continues to encourage troops to get the COVID vaccine despite no longer requiring it.
Rescinding the military vaccine mandate was part of a compromise between Democrats and Republicans in putting together the 2023 NDAA. As noted in Austin’s memo, the agreement does not reinstate members of the military who were dismissed for refusing the vaccine.