With the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine order lifted, troops can refuse to take the shot without risking ending their careers. But those who refused it in the past could still be booted for “disobeying a lawful order,” Defense Department officials warned lawmakers Tuesday.
“It’s very important that our service members follow orders when they are lawful, and there are thousands that did not,” Gilbert Cisneros Jr., Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel, told members of the House Armed Services Committee. “The services are going through a process to review those cases to make a determination what needs to be done.”
The potential additional dismissals are the latest controversy surrounding the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which has been a target of conservative lawmakers almost since it was put in place nearly two years ago.
It drew immediate condemnation from Republicans on the congressional panel, who accused defense officials of trying to circumvent a law rescinding the vaccine mandate, which was passed late last year.
“What’s the point of getting into these cases?” said Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., chairman of the committee’s military personnel panel. “You’re still punishing them for not taking the vaccine.”
From August 2021 to January 2023, all active-duty service members were required to receive vaccinations against the fast-spreading coronavirus variants in an effort to maintain force readiness and health.
Defense Department leaders said about 16,000 individuals refused that order without making any requests for exemption or accommodation. About 8,400 were separated from the services as a result.
Last week, service leaders were instructed to rescind all COVID-19 vaccination policies by March 17, per a congressional mandate. That included undoing any existing restrictions or pending separations on troops who refused the shots.
Cisneros said that individuals who had pending exemption requests would have their cases cleared and settled. But individuals who simply refused the vaccines, even after repeated warnings, could still run afoul of other regulations that may warrant additional punishment.
Those decisions will be made by the individual services.
Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones said that officials are looking at cases to ensure that “other aggravating factors, such as misconduct” aren’t involved.
“If the adverse action is tied solely to refusal of the vaccine, then the Air Force Personnel Center is taking steps now to remove that adverse action in their files,” she said.
Army and Navy leaders at the hearing said they are conducting similar review processes.
“Each of these cases has to be evaluated on its own individual merits,” said Under Secretary of the Army Gabe Camarillo. “There may be numerous violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or other areas in which to look at disciplinary procedures.”
Defense officials did not offer any timeline for when that work may be finished. Republican lawmakers said they would look at additional steps to ensure more troops are not separated because of the rescinded policy.
They did note that the vaccine refusals make up a small fraction of the total force, and said they hope that most service members continue to get the COVID-19 vaccines even without the mandate.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers on the panel said they hope to reinstate all dismissed individuals to the armed forces with full benefits and back pay. Cisneros said officials are not looking into any such move at the present.
From early 2020 to the end of 2022, 96 service members, 36 military family members, 417 Defense Department civilian employees and 141 defense contractor employees died of complications related to COVID-19.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.