Pentagon drops COVID-19 vaccine mandate for troops

Jan 10, 2023, 1:32 AM | Updated: Jan 11, 2023, 6:57 am
FILE - The Pentagon is seen from Air Force One as it flies over Washington, March 2, 2022. The Pent...

FILE - The Pentagon is seen from Air Force One as it flies over Washington, March 2, 2022. The Pentagon has formally dropped its COVID-19 vaccination mandate, but a new memo signed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also gives commanders some discretion in how or whether to deploy troops who are not vaccinated. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon formally dropped its COVID-19 vaccination mandate Tuesday, but a new memo signed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also gives commanders some discretion in how or whether to deploy troops who are not vaccinated.

Austin’s memo has been widely anticipated ever since legislation signed into law on Dec. 23 gave him 30 days to rescind the mandate. The Defense Department had already stopped all related personnel actions, such as discharging troops who refused the shot.

“The Department will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all service members,” Austin said in the memo. “Vaccination enhances operational readiness and protects the force.”

Austin said that commanders have the authority to maintain unit readiness and a healthy force. He added, however, that other department policies — including mandates for other vaccines — remain in place. That includes, he said, “the ability of commanders to consider, as appropriate, the individual immunization status of personnel in making deployment, assignment, and other operational decisions, including when vaccination is required for travel to, or entry into, a foreign nation.”

The contentious political issue, which has divided America, forced more than 8,400 troops out of the military for refusing to obey a lawful order when they declined to get the vaccine. Thousands of others sought religious and medical exemptions. Austin’s memo ends those exemption requests.

Austin, who instituted the mandate in August 2021 after the Pfizer vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration and as the coronavirus pandemic raged, was staunch in his desire to maintain it insisting the vaccine was necessary to protect the health of the force. He and other defense leaders argued that for decades troops, particularly those deployed overseas, had been required to get as many as 17 different vaccines. No other vaccine mandates were affected by the new law.

But Congress agreed to rescind the mandate, with opponents reluctantly saying that perhaps it had already succeeded in getting the bulk of the force vaccinated. Roughly 99% of active-duty troops in the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps had gotten the vaccine, and 98% of the Army. The Guard and Reserve rates are lower, but generally are more than 90%.

Austin’s memo was unapologetic in his continued support for the vaccine, and his belief that the mandate kept the force healthy and able to protect America. The Pentagon’s vaccine efforts, he said, “will leave a lasting legacy in the many lives we saved, the world-class force we have been able to field, and the high level of readiness we have maintained, amidst difficult public health conditions.”

In addition to ending efforts to discharge troops who refuse the vaccine, Austin’s memo says that those who sought exemptions and were denied will have their records updated and any letters of reprimand will be removed.

Those who were discharged for refusing to obey a lawful order to take the vaccine received either an honorable discharge or a general discharge under honorable conditions. Austin’s memo says that anyone who was discharged can petition their military service to request a change in the “characterization of their discharge” in their personnel records. It does not, however, say what possible corrections could be awarded.

Austin’s decision leaves some discretion to commanders, allowing them to decide whether they can require vaccines in some circumstances, such as certain deployments overseas.

Military officials vividly recall the overwhelming crisis of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the Navy aircraft carrier that was knocked out of duty and sidelined in Guam for 10 weeks in early 2020 as the emerging virus swept through the ship. More than 1,000 crew members eventually became infected, and one sailor died.

Military leaders worry that if troops begin to refuse the vaccine in large numbers, similar outbreaks could occur. The risk is particularly high on small ships or submarines where service members are jammed into close quarters for weeks or months at a time, or on critical combat missions, such as those involving special operations forces that deploy in small teams.

According to data compiled by the military as of early December, the Marine Corps leads the services with 3,717 Marines discharged. There have been 2,041 discharged from the Navy, 1,841 from the Army and 834 from the Air Force. The Air Force data includes the Space Force.

What’s not clear is if the services, who are facing recruiting challenges, will want — or be able to — allow any of those service members to return to duty, if they still meet all necessary fitness and other requirements.

Lawmakers argued that ending the mandate would help with recruiting. Defense officials have pushed back by saying that while it may help a bit, a department survey during the first nine months of last year found that a large majority said the mandate did not change the likelihood they would consider enlisting.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Activists momentarily surround an MPD cruiser during a march for Tyre Nichols, who died after being...
Associated Press

Memphis police disband unit that beat Tyre Nichols

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Memphis police chief on Saturday disbanded the city’s so-called Scorpion unit, citing a “cloud of dishonor” from newly released video that showed some of its officers beating Tyre Nichols to death after stopping the Black motorist. Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis acted a day after the harrowing video emerged, saying […]
18 hours ago
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., is seen in the U.S. Capitol, July 14, 2022, in Washington.  Gallego sa...
Associated Press

Gallego holds first events of Arizona Senate campaign

PHOENIX (AP) — Democrat Ruben Gallego held the first public events of his U.S. Senate campaign Saturday, taking aim at independent incumbent Kyrsten Sinema and casting his candidacy in a patriotic appeal to the American dream. The fifth-term congressman recounted his journey from a poor family in Chicago to cleaning toilets as a Harvard student […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Saturday’s Scores

GIRLS PREP BASKETBALL= Bothell 44, Glacier Peak 40 Burlington-Edison 47, Squalicum 33 Columbia River 53, R.A. Long 28 Entiat 60, Cascade (Leavenworth) 9 Evergreen Lutheran 48, Three Rivers Christian School 26 Hermiston, Ore. 66, Pasco 36 Kamiakin 61, Kennewick 35 Kennedy 49, Bainbridge 42 La Conner 81, Skyview 77 Lakeside (Seattle) 71, Seattle Prep 37 […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Saturday’s Scores

BOYS PREP BASKETBALL= Bothell 64, Glacier Peak 49 Cedarcrest 60, Marysville-Pilchuck 57 Inchelium 71, Springdale 70 Kellogg, Idaho 50, Newport 27 Lynden 69, Lakewood 50 Naselle 63, Winlock 59 Sound Christian 69, Pope John Paul II 34 ___ Some high school basketball scores provided by Scorestream.com, https://scorestream.com/ Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Arizona Republicans pick former Trump official to lead party

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona Republicans on Saturday selected former state treasurer and Donald Trump aide Jeff DeWit to be the party’s next chairman, turning to a familiar face with relationships across the fractured party after its worst election in decades. DeWit replaces firebrand Trump ally Kelli Ward, who helped the former president in his efforts […]
18 hours ago
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at the South Carolina Statehouse, Saturday...
Associated Press

Trump says beating of Nichols ‘never should have happened’

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Former President Donald Trump on Saturday said the footage of the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers is “horrible” and that the attack “never should have happened.” “I thought it was terrible. He was in such trouble. He was just being pummeled. Now that should never have […]
18 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.
SHIBA WA...

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Pentagon drops COVID-19 vaccine mandate for troops