Defense officials won’t be allowed to give other-than-honorable discharges to troops who refuse COVID-19 vaccines once the new defense authorization bill is signed into law.
But even before that, service leaders have opted for less confrontational dismissals as they are starting to process some of those individuals out of the ranks.
On Thursday, Marine Corps leaders announced that 103 service members have been separated in recent weeks for refusing the vaccine, which was mandated for all troops by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier this summer.
Earlier in the week, the Air Force announced it had booted 27 airmen for failing to meet the requirement.
Punishment for failing to follow the orders could have included a dishonorable discharge designation, a move that would bar those individuals from eligibility for a host of veterans benefits, including GI Bill assistance and Veterans Affairs home loans.
But Maj. Jim Stenger, spokesman for the Marine Corps, said that in nearly all of the cases so far, individuals received dismissals with “general, under honorable conditions” designations. Ann Stefanek, chief of Air Force media operations, said that all of the discharged airmen were assigned status as honorable or general under honorable conditions.
“The Department of the Air Force is following the intent laid out in the national defense authorization act,” she said.
The authorization bill, finalized by Congress on Wednesday, mandates that “any discharge of a servicemember on the sole basis that the member failed to obey a lawful order to receive a vaccine for COVID-19 shall be an honorable discharge, or a general discharge under honorable conditions.”
The language was added to the bill by House lawmakers over the summer, shortly after the vaccine mandate was announced. While no Pentagon leaders specified that they would be seeking severe punishment for the vaccine refusals, numerous conservative lawmakers tied the idea to their objections over the policy.
Earlier this week, Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., and an Army veteran, praised the inclusion of the idea in the final defense bill, calling it “a big leap in the right direction” for the military. He authored the original amendment on the issue during House debate over the authorization legislation.
“We must always stand for our brave men and women in uniform all around this world,” he said.
President Joe Biden is expected to sign the defense bill into law in the coming days, making the vaccine refusal restrictions law.
Service officials will still be allowed to give dishonorable discharges to individuals who refuse the vaccine and commit other infractions, but will have to provide a broader justification for those moves.
Army and Navy officials said they have not officially processed out any service members due to vaccine refusal yet, but are expecting to do so starting next month.
Deadlines for compliance with the vaccine mandates for active duty troops have passed for each of the four services. Military leaders have said more than 95% of the active duty force have received the vaccine.
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.