The Department of Defense officially rescinded its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for service members on Tuesday as announced in a memo from Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Saying he is "deeply proud of the Department's work to combat the coronavirus disease," Secretary Austin claimed his leadership on COVID response "improved the health of our Service members and the readiness of the Force." How's that for some selective memory?
Austin remained in support of the vaccine mandate even as it was legislated away in the most recent NDAA. And, as then-GOP Leader (now Speaker) McCarthy noted at the time, the Army and Navy "missed their 2022 recruitment goals by thousands of service members" while "the Defense Department discharged 3,300 Marines, 1,800 soldiers, 1,800 sailors, and 900 airmen simply based on their personal decision to not take the COVID vaccine."
That doesn't sound like an improvement to the "readiness of the force" as Austin claimed in his memo that rescinded an August 2021 memo mandating members of the Armed Forces be vaccinated against COVID-19 as well as the November 2021 memo pertaining to the vaccination of National Guard and Reserve personnel.
So, even though vaccination against COVID is no longer a requirement, Austin said that the Defense Department "will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all Service members."
In addition to rescinding the mandate, Austin's memo explained that "no individuals currently serving in the Armed Forces shall 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."
In addition, "Military Departments will update the records of such individuals to remove any adverse actions solely associated with denials of such requests, including letters of reprimand" and "Secretaries of the Military Departments will further cease any ongoing reviews of current Service member religious, administrative, or medical accommodation requests solely for exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine or appeals of denials of such requests."
Austin's memo does however hint that disparate treatment based on COVID-19 vaccination status may not be completely over. "Other standing Departmental policies, procedures, and processes regarding immunizations remain in effect," including "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."
For the thousands of Service members mentioned above who were discharged as a result of their choice to not receive COVID vaccines, Austin did not have much to offer. Only "the Department is precluded by law from awarding any characterization less than a general (under honorable conditions) discharge" and that former Service members "may petition their Military Department's Discharge Review Boards and Boards for Correction of Military or Naval Records to individually request a correction to their personnel records, including records regarding the characterization of their discharge."
As Leah reported late last year just before the end of the 117th Congress, Republicans succeeded in getting the provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to repeal the Pentagon's vaccine mandate. That was a win to be sure, but Republican lawmakers including new Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Senator James Lankford (R-OK) say it's not enough to just remove the requirement — restitution must be made.
McCarthy said last year during the NDAA negotiations that his now-in-place GOP House majority would "work to finally hold the Biden administration accountable and assist the men and women in uniform who were unfairly targeted" for choosing not to be vaccinated.