The Army is “immediately” beginning involuntary discharges for active duty troops who have refused to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, the service announced Wednesday.

In a release announcing the move, the service noted that the order also applies to cadets, Guard and Reserve troops who are on Title 10 active duty tours of more than 30 days. Soldiers who are scheduled to separate, retire or begin their terminal leave before July 1 will receive administrative exemptions.

According to a new Army directive, commanders are to “immediately...initiate involuntary administrative separation proceedings” for troops who have refused the vaccine and don’t have a pending or approved exemption. The message also instructs commands to “process these expeditiously as possible.”

As of Jan. 26, only 3,350 active duty soldiers have refused the vaccine, and only 3,619 requests for religious or medical exemptions remain pending. The service has not yet approved any religious accommodations for the shot, though it has authorized six permanent medical exemptions. Troops whose exemption requests are denied will have a week to either get the shot or file an appeal, the release said.

Enlisted soldiers refusing the shot will receive an involuntary discharge for “commission of a serious offense,” but an Army official clarified on background that the service currently plans to permit those troops to reenlist with a waiver should they later get the vaccine.

Officers and warrant officers who refused the vaccine have until March — or two weeks after their exemption requests are denied — to resign rather than face separation proceedings, the directive said.

Soldiers eligible to retire on or before July 1 will “be permitted to retire...through expedited process” rather than be kicked out, according to the directive. They, too, must submit their retirement requests by March or within 14 days of their exemption request being denied.

Bonus recoupment and discharge characterization

The directive confirmed that the Army will comply with a measure in the fiscal 2022 defense policy bill that barred the services from issuing other-than-honorable discharges solely for vaccine refusal.

“All soldiers, including those in an entry-level status, who are refusing to become vaccinated will be issued either an Honorable or General (under honorable conditions)” discharge, the directive said. But it cautioned that troops with “additional misconduct” may receive an other-than-honorable discharge.

Even a general discharge under honorable conditions would impact the post-service benefits available to troops who refused the vaccine.

Soldiers with a general discharge are ineligible for the GI Bill, according to the VA website, but they are eligible for other benefits like disability pay.

Not even an honorable discharge will help troops and cadets receiving financial incentives for their service, though.

The directive said that soldiers separated will be ineligible for involuntary separation pay “and may be subject to termination and recoupment” of bonuses and special pays. Those terminations will be processed “in accordance with current policy and regulations,” adding that Army Secretary Christine Wormuth will decide on a “case-by-case” basis if any exceptions are appropriate.

In a statement accompanying the release, Wormuth said that “unvaccinated soldiers present risk to the force and jeopardize readiness.”

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.

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