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Reporting on military life and veterans issues, in collaboration with the American Homefront Project.

Department of Defense rescinds controversial COVID vaccine mandate for troops

The 109th Airlift Wing began administering COVID-19 Vaccines on March 10, 2021.
Master Sgt. Christine Wood/109th Air Wing/Public affairs
The 109th Airlift Wing began administering COVID-19 Vaccines on March 10, 2021.

The military will now allow troops to serve even if they refuse to get the COVID vaccine after Congress overturned the Pentagon's controversial vaccine mandate. Defense Secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin made the shots mandatoryin 2021, calling the vaccine “necessary” for troop safety.

Defense department spokesperson Sabrina Singh said mandate or not, the department’s recommendation is simple.

“Even though we have rescinded the vaccine mandate, we're going to continue to encourage our service members, our civilians, to take the vaccine,” Singh said. “It's free, it's easy, it will save your life.”

While current servicemembers and new recruits won't be forced to get the vaccine, it's less clear what will happen to about 8,400 people who were discharged for refusing it — or who left voluntarily. Singh said the Pentagon will not automatically reinstate refusers, and won't give them back pay.

“If they wanted to rejoin the military, they would have to follow the process, just like anyone else who would want to join for the very first time,” Singh said.

For advocates and some congressional Republicans who argued the vaccine should have been optional all along, the repeal doesn’t go far enough.

“On the one hand, it stops the mandate going forward,” said Mat Staver, co-founder of the Liberty Counsel, a Christian ministry organization that advocates for religious freedom. “But on the other hand, there are people that have been discharged and/or are currently in the military under punishment, and that has to be resolved.”

Staver said the mandate was unconstitutional from the start because it infringes on the religious and free speech rights of service members. The U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld the Navy's right to re-assign sailors who refuse the vaccine, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh writingthat the courts should defer to the judgment of military commanders.

But Staver has filed additional lawsuits on behalf of former service members who applied for a religious exemption to the mandate but were denied.

“Those that have been separated for any reason whether they have religious or non-religious objections to these mandates should be allowed to return with back pay,” Staver said.

Representatives for the Department of Defense have skirted questions on the precedent set by active duty troops who refuse a lawful order that is later overturned. Others worry about the message the military would send if it allowed those troops to come back without any consequences.

“The order was lawful at the time, and if you decided not to follow it then you do so at your own peril,” said Robert Sanders, a retired Navy lawyer who now teaches national security at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.

He said unvaccinated troops could create a long-term readiness problem.

“If we want to voluntarily send folks to other countries, there may be a requirement for them to be vaccinated,” Sanders said. “And if we can't send a whole unit that's vaccinated, or we have key members in the unit that aren't vaccinated, mission ability and readiness can fail.”

Currently, around 98% of the armed forces have gotten the shots. But now that it’s no longer mandatory, it’s not clear whether that almost perfect record will hold.

In Gen. Austin’s memoannouncing the repeal of the vaccine mandate, he stood by the requirement, saying it left a lasting legacy and boosted the military’s readiness during a public health crisis.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Desiree reports on the lives of military service members, veterans, and their families for WSHU as part of the American Homefront project. Born and raised in Connecticut, she now calls Long Island home.