Republican lawmakers are renewing calls for the Department of Defense to reinstate thousands of troops dismissed from the service last year for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19, calling it a matter of fairness and readiness.
“Over 8,000 servicemembers were discharged because of the administration’s unjust COVID vaccine mandate, and many were denied the benefits of honorable service,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., in a statement announcing new legislation on the issue. “This is an utter slap in the face to the brave men and women who have volunteered to defend our nation.”
Earlier this month, Defense Department officials ended the requirement that all service members receive the COVID-19 vaccine. That change was forced by members of Congress, who included the issue in the bipartisan defense authorization act passed in December.
White House officials opposed ending the vaccine mandate but also said the issue was largely moot, since most troops agreed to the shots without objection.
But about 8,000 troops were forced from the ranks last year for refusing the inoculations, many claiming religious objections.
Republican lawmakers supporting the new legislation — introduced in the House and Senate on Wednesday — said simply ending the vaccine mandate for the military doesn’t go far enough to compensate those dismissed individuals.
“I’m glad that we were able to remove the COVID-19 vaccine mandate last Congress, but there is more work to do,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in a statement. “[This bill] would correct the wrongs done to unvaccinated service members who were discharged for exercising their conscience.”
Under the proposal, any service member “separated solely for COVID-19 vaccine status” would be allowed to return to their previous post, with their separation time reinstated for retirement credit purposes.
It would also restore the rank of any service member demoted for refusing the vaccine and award “any pay and benefits lost due to that demotion.”
Individuals who choose not to return would have their discharge status upgraded to honorable and have any record of refusing the vaccine expunged from official military records.
Last week, when asked about the issue of reimbursement for troops booted for COVID-19 issues, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said that “we are not pursuing, as a matter of policy, backpay for those who refused the vaccine. At the time that those orders were refused, it was a lawful order.”
Whether the new legislation could have the same success as the vaccine mandate repeal remains unclear. Republicans now control the House, giving the GOP-backed measure an easier path to passage there than last session.
But Democrats still have the majority in the Senate, and numerous Democratic senators lamented the inclusion of the vaccine mandate repeal when they voted for the defense authorization bill (seen by many in Congress as must-pass legislation each year).
The legislation would also prohibit the defense secretary from issuing “any replacement COVID-19 vaccine mandate” without congressional approval.
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.