Troops who refused the COVID vaccine may still face discipline

WASHINGTON (AP) — The military services are still reviewing possible discipline for troops who refused orders to get the COVID-19 vaccine, defense officials told Congress Tuesday, giving few details on how many of those forced out of the military will would like to return.

Lawmakers expressed frustration at the news and questioned why service members would still face discipline when the vaccine requirement had been lifted.

Gilbert Cisneros Jr., the undersecretary of defense for personnel, told the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee that some service members who disobeyed the legal order to get the vaccine — and did not seek any kind of exemption — were still going through the review process.

“In order to maintain good order and discipline, it is very important that our service members go and follow orders when they are lawful,” Cisneros said, adding that the military service reviewed each case to evaluate what needed to be done.

The vaccine mandate divided Americans and has remained a contentious political issue. More than 8,400 soldiers were forced out of the military for refusing to obey a lawful order when they refused to get the vaccine. Thousands of others sought religious and medical exemptions.

The Pentagon formally dropped the mandate in January as a result of legislation signed in late December. But a number of disciplinary cases were pending when the requirement was lifted.

Cisneros and top Army, Navy and Air Force officials told the subcommittee that in some cases, troops may have committed other wrongdoing beyond the vaccine refusal, so each case was reviewed.

“What’s the point?” said Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., subcommittee chairman. “We revoked the mandate – what’s the point of continuing to review the cases?”

Banks said a number of lawmakers were “outraged by the double standards and message you’re sending to repeal a policy and still punish them for not taking the vaccine.”

Lawmakers also pressed defense officials on whether troops who were discharged were allowed to return to duty.

Erik Raven, the undersecretary of the Navy, was the only one to provide an estimate, saying that “we’ve had single digits in terms of the number of people who have explored the possibility of returning to service.” It was not clear whether these individuals had formally applied for reenlistment or were simply asking about it.

Raven, along with Gina Ortiz Jones, the undersecretary of the Air Force, and Gabe Camarillo, the undersecretary of the Army, all told lawmakers that service members can go through the regular process for reinstatement. In most cases, they will have to go to a review board to have their discharge status changed and then they can seek to re-enroll. They had to meet all other enrollment standards.

Rep. Cory Mills, R-Fla., said he will push to allow those who were “illegally purged, in my opinion, to rejoin the military with their full benefits, their back pay and get what they should have been. given, which is the chance to serve our U.S. military.”

Any move to provide back pay or other benefits retroactively must be dealt with through legislation.

Lawmakers also questioned the impact of the emissions on the military, including whether it forced many pilots out. Jones said only 40 Air Force officers were discharged for refusing the vaccine order, and another 14 chose to retire voluntarily. All the others were enlisted personnel. Air Force pilots are all officers.

Overall, according to data collected by the military late last year, the Marine Corps leads the services with 3,717 Marines discharged for refusing to follow the vaccine order. 2,041 have been discharged from the Navy, 1,841 from the Army and 834 from the Air Force. Air Force data includes the space force.

Defense officials have also suggested that in many cases those who refused the order and were discharged were in the very early stages of their military enlistment.

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