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Pentagon ends coronavirus vaccine mandate that fueled political uproar

The Washington Post 1/11/2023 Alex Horton
Military personnel administer coronavirus vaccinations in February 2021. © Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson/AP Military personnel administer coronavirus vaccinations in February 2021.

The Pentagon on Tuesday rescinded its order that all military personnel receive a coronavirus vaccine, a move that senior leaders opposed but must carry out under a provision in this year’s defense policy bill.

Military officials will no longer discipline or remove service members for vaccine refusal, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a memo to the force, but the Defense Department will still encourage immunization against the virus and allow commanders latitude in deciding whether unvaccinated troops pose a risk to mission success.

Austin has described the shots, which had become a part of the battery of vaccinations that personnel are required to receive as a condition of their service, as key to keeping the military healthy and ready to fight. But the order became a political flash point even before its official announcement in 2021.

Republican lawmakers led the effort to repeal the mandate, calling it an affront to service members’ individual liberties, and many have called for the reinstatement of those who were forced out of the military for refusing to be vaccinated against the virus. Biden administration officials denounced the move as a dangerous mistake, but congressional Democrats and the White House were forced to go along with it after a large portion of the GOP said it would not support the legislation otherwise.

The $858 billion defense bill directs how federal dollars can be spent on the Pentagon, the military and related programs. It is considered must-pass legislation each year.

Rollback of covid vaccine mandate met with furor at Pentagon

The vast majority of the military’s 2.1 million service members rolled up their sleeves and received a coronavirus vaccine after it became mandatory, but more than 8,500 were forced out for refusing. Others filed lawsuits that challenged what they said was an opaque process allowing troops to seek exemptions on religious and medical grounds, requests that were rarely granted.

Austin’s memo said former service members removed solely for vaccine refusal can file an appeal to review their character of discharge. Most were issued general discharges under honorable conditions, a category below honorable that still allows former service members to secure veterans benefits.

The memo said commanders will retain authority to “consider, as appropriate, the individual immunization status of personnel in making deployment, assignment, and other operational decisions.” The inability to deploy or a failure to meet expectations for other duties can have adverse career implications.

Still, some commanders have grown frustrated by the ordeal, saying the mandate was unambiguous and the ensuing political fallout within the ranks a major distraction that undermined order. Military analysts have said disciplinary problems can arise when rank-and-file troops see the erosion of rules set clearly and forcefully by senior leaders, opening the door to other challenges of their authority.

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