Despite the Department of Defense rescinding the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, unvaccinated military members are still facing repercussions, including denied benefits, ineligibility for promotion, being non-deployable, and potentially diminished employment prospects for those already discharged.
On Dec. 23, President Biden signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the $858 billion defense spending bill that included a measure repealing the mandate. On Dec. 29, the Defense Department followed suit, rescinding the mandate that has frayed military morale and resulted in the discharge of over 8,000 service members who refused the vaccine.
In rescinding the vaccine mandate, the DOD acknowledged the NDAA requires Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to rescind his Aug. 24, 2021 memo issuing the sweeping order.
Despite the new DOD memo rescinding the August memo, however, the Army said that it didn’t apply to the National Guard and Reserves because there was a separate Nov. 30, 2021 memo that hadn’t been rescinded.
On Jan. 10, the defense secretary issued another memo, which rescinded the November memo in addition to the August memo.
“The Department will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all Service members,” the Jan. 10 memo reads.
Service members won’t “be separated solely on the basis of their refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccination if they sought an accommodation on religious, administrative, or medical grounds,” according to the memo. Additionally, records of military members will be updated with the removal of “any adverse actions solely associated with denials of” COVID vaccine exemptions, “including letters of reprimand,” and reviews of members seeking exemptions will end.
Military branch commanders may, however, consider a service member’s vaccination status “in making deployment, assignment, and other operational decisions, including when vaccination is required for travel to, or entry into, a foreign nation.”
Air Force Second Lt. Addie Hulet and 10 other officers who refused to get the vaccine have been in an ongoing legal and financial battle with the government. The NDAA “does not prevent the Department of Defense or anyone else from putting on mandates on service members, once again,” she told the “Just the News, No Noise” TV show on Monday. “Really, all it says is, ‘Hey, if you want your money, remove this mandate right now.’ But it doesn’t say you can’t bring it back. And … it’s also still allowing punishment going on throughout the military.
“So what I’m looking for is for there to be justice for these service members, and I’m looking for there to be justice for service members who have been unlawfully removed from their position and whose livelihoods have been removed based solely on the fact of using their right to informed consent.”
Military attorney R. Davis Younts, who has represented service members in lawsuits challenging the military vaccine mandate on religious freedom grounds, told Just the News on Friday that rescinding the mandate is not a complete remedy and lawsuits will have to continue.
One of Younts’ main concerns is all the unvaccinated reservists who were involuntarily transferred into the Non-Participating Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), a state of limbo in which they can’t participate in drills; can’t receive military orders, pay or retirement; are ineligible for military healthcare; and have to fully pay life insurance on their own in order to keep it.
The guidance these clients are receiving is that they’re “out of luck,” Younts said, adding that there’s “no incentive to bring them back to active drilling reserve status.” Reservists only have about two years to get back into active drilling status before they’re forced out of the military.
The reservists would have to go to court to appeal their status, which is “why religious freedom cases should continue,” Younts explained, as nothing about the NDAA “helps or protects them.”
Another issue yet to be resolved is related to the removal of adverse actions from service members’ files, said Younts, who claims multiple unvaccinated clients were fired from their command positions because, they were told, their superiors had lost confidence in their ability to command as a result of their vaccination status or request for religious exemption.
“Taking a letter of reprimand or adverse action out of a file doesn’t address that they were relieved of command for cause,” Younts argued, adding that it still leaves them ineligible for promotions, derailing their careers. This “applies to thousands of military members,” he said, who can’t be promoted, “go to training, or get leadership assignments.”
Even with the purging of adverse actions from the files of the unvaccinated, performance reports for the past two years still “look terrible,” Younts explained, as their vaccination status may have prevented them from attending trainings, performing duties, or moving to a new position. Performance reports are used in the consideration of promotions for service members.
The rescinded mandate “doesn’t address ongoing coercive tactics that the DOD used against military members to get them vaccinated,” he added, citing the case of a Navy officer who because he wasn’t vaccinated spent eight and a half months on an aircraft carrier while others on board were allowed to leave.
Deployability is yet another issue for unvaccinated service members, according to the attorney, who claims that even an unvaccinated service member remaining in the military might still not be deployed and, as a result, eventually be discharged.
Finally, there are the service members who have already been discharged from the military. While the DOD claims around 8,000-9,000 service members were separated from the military over the vaccine mandate, Younts said that estimate doesn’t include the thousands who “voluntarily” separated, retired, or were unable to reenlist.
The majority of service members separated from the military over the vaccine mandate received a general discharge, Younts explained, which prevents them from receiving GI Bill benefits and veterans’ preference points for jobs. The general discharge, which does not specify a refusal of the COVID vaccine as its cause, can carry a stigma, possibly harming a separated service member’s employment propspects. While such individuals can hire an attorney to write a letter explaining they were discharged over the vaccine mandate, not all employers would view that favorably, he cautioned.
“We need to act and for Congress to do more,” Younts said. “We can’t trust the DOD and the secretaries of the services to change their position and go from being hostile and aggressive towards Christians fighting the mandate and suddenly completely change. I expect coercion, legal issues, rights violations, and pushing people to board of corrections. It’s tough.”
A DOD spokesperson told Just the News in a statement on Friday: “All Service members and Veterans may apply at any time to the appropriate Discharge Review Board or Board for Correction for Military/Naval Records if they believe that there is an error or injustice in their records — to include those that were separated by the vaccine mandate. Regarding back pay, the Department is still exploring this and will provide its views on legislation of this nature at the appropriate time and through the appropriate process.”