The Army rolled out its mandatory COVID-19 vaccine deadlines and refusal procedures in a Tuesday afternoon press release, becoming the final branch of the military to announce its approach to fulfilling Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s Aug. 24 order that all uniformed personnel receive the shot.
Army Times also obtained a copy of the Army’s execution order posted to social media that provides more details on the immunization campaign — including involuntary discharges at an unannounced future date for soldiers who refuse the vaccine.
“This is quite literally a matter of life and death for our Soldiers, their families and the communities in which we live,” said Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle, the Army Surgeon General. “Case counts and deaths continue to be concerning as the Delta variant spreads, which makes protecting the force through mandatory vaccination a health and readiness priority for the total Army.”
Since Aug. 1, at least 13 troops have died of COVID-19, including at least four servicemembers under the age of 30.
But despite Dingle calling the vaccine “a matter of life and death,” the Army set the least ambitious timeline for vaccination of any of the military services.
Active duty troops have until Dec. 15 to receive one of the vaccines authorized by either the Food and Drug Administration or the World Health Organization. The Air Force, by comparison, has set its deadline for Nov. 2 for airmen and guardians; sailors and marines have until Nov. 28, the Navy says.
“As of today, more than 80% of active duty Soldiers have received at least their first dose,” said Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Terence Kelley. “These dates are readiness goals, and as with any other readiness requirement, Soldiers are required to receive the vaccine when it is available and directed by their commander.”
Soldiers in the National Guard have until June 30, 2022, to receive their vaccines — six months longer than reservists of any other military branch, who have December deadlines.
Asked about the longer deadline for reserve component troops, Kelley said that it’s because “many reserve component units [are] conducting virtual assemblies due to the pandemic, this timeline allows commanders the time they need to vaccinate their force.”
What happens if a soldier refuses?
According to the release, soldiers who refuse to receive the vaccine will face “administrative or non-judicial punishment [under UCMJ] – to include relief of duties or discharge.” The EXORD states that there will be no forcible immunizations.
No soldier will receive any adverse action while an exemption request is pending, though, nor will they face punishment before their commanders and medical providers have spoken with them about the vaccine and potential disciplinary proceedings if they continue to refuse. Kelley told Army Times that continued refusal could result in “judicial punishment” — courts-martial — as well.
Soldiers will be able to request “legitimate” medical, religious or administrative exemptions in accordance with existing Army regulations and policies, the release said. The Army has also released a new directive that will provide additional guidance on exemption requests, but Army officials were unable to provide a copy ahead of the document’s official release.
Commanders, command sergeants major, and first sergeants who refuse vaccination will face immediate suspension from their leadership role if they do not have a pending exemption request, the release added. After receiving counseling about the consequences of continued noncompliance, leaders are “provided the opportunity to become vaccinated” before a general officer fires them from their position.
Soldiers selected for coveted assignments such as command, nominative roles or other “key billet[s],” will be removed from the selection list if they do not have a pending or approved exemption, the release said.
According to the EXORD, junior enlisted soldiers who refuse the vaccine without a pending or approved exemption will be flagged, preventing promotions or other favorable personnel actions, and receive at least a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand. The reprimands, known as GOMORs, are often considered career killers, though not always.
The order also lays out “Phase 2″ of the vaccine mission to begin at an undetermined date. When the Army begins phase 2, the EXORD says, “Commanders will initiate mandatory separation of soldiers who refuse the vaccine.” If commanders fail to comply with the directive, they can be punished under UCMJ, the order adds.
Natural immunity won’t necessarily get soldiers out of the vaccine requirement either, the release said. Soldiers with “previous COVID-19 infections are not automatically exempt from full vaccination and should consult their primary care managers” for requesting exemption, the release added.
Soldiers awaiting exemption requests “must continue to comply with all other applicable force health protection measures applicable to unvaccinated people,” such as wearing masks when directed by their installation commander, the release stated.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with information from an Army Headquarters execution order. This article was previously updated to correct the suspense date for Guard and Reserve soldiers to receive the vaccine. A previous version incorrectly stated that June 15, 2022, was the deadline.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.