Three weeks ago, Congress was debating blocking of dishonorable discharges for vaccine refusal by military personnel. This week, the government is finding out it may have an even greater problem with a potential exodus of military personnel due to the requirement for the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine. The White House’s federal vaccine mandate sparked controversy among Americans, including some service members stating they will get out before they take the shot.
After the Pfizer vaccine received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in August, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that all U.S. service members must receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Marines and sailors now have until November 28 to get vaccinated, with the Air Force and Space Force stating their deadline is November 2. The Army is allowing extra time, until December 15, for soldiers to get their jabs, while the Army National Guard and Reserve have until June 30, 2022.
Service members have limited options when it comes to vaccine choice. They will have a hard time with exemption, without previously protesting a dozen-plus other Department of Defense (DoD) mandated vaccines for all troops. Punishment, especially senior leaders who refuse, could include discharge. So where does that leave troops that are determined not to get a shot?
Soldiers who refuse may be subject to “administrative or non-judicial punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), to include relief of duties or discharge,” according to Army guidelines. An administrative discharge is a big deal. One usually must establish a pattern of misconduct; to include such problems as drug abuse; insubordination; weight control issues; nonperformance of duties; or poor duty performance. All of these are akin to being fired from a civilian job and some potentially lead to an Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharge. Before it comes to an administrative discharge, the military has worked out a significant counseling process to help educate service members on the benefits of getting their shots.
The vaccine problem crosses all services, with both conventional and unconventional warriors. One of our most elite fighting forces may be hit harder than other groups by the vaccine requirement. Hundreds of Navy SEALs were recently told that they will be undeployable and no longer be able to serve as a Navy SEAL, if they do not receive the vaccine.
Legislation for dishonorable discharge prohibitions
With politics in full swing, some in congress have introduced legislation this past week. If approved, it would prohibit the DoD from issuing dishonorable discharges for vaccine refusal.
Senator Marshall stated, “As a physician and veteran who is confident that the vaccine has saved countless lives, I believe vaccinating our servicemembers against COVID-19 is an important effort; however, whether or not to receive the vaccine should be a personal choice between an individual and their doctor.” Marshall further stated, “Servicemembers who refuse to get vaccinated, and are subsequently separated from the service, should not receive anything other than an honorable discharge. There is no question about it: American heroes should not be treated as felons because of their personal medical choices.”
As of September 22, 1.22 million active duty, reserve, and guard uniformed personnel were fully vaccinated against the virus according to the DoD Coronavirus Response website. Earlier this summer, total COVID-19 deaths for military personnel were 26. Just two months later (September 22), 52 military personnel have died, demonstrating concerns over the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant and its effect on the younger population.