Pentagon formally rescinds COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Move required by fiscal 2023 defense budget

The Department of Defense Tuesday formally rescinded its mandate requiring members of the military to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The move is a marked change from previous policy. In September 2021, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall required all active-duty personnel to get the vaccine by Nov. 2, 2021, with Reserve and National Guard members required to get the vaccine by Dec. 2 that year.

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“The health and readiness of the force are crucial to the department’s ability to defend our nation,” the DOD said in a release Tuesday. “Secretary (of Defense Lloyd) Austin continues to encourage all service members, civilian employees, and contractor personnel to get vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 to ensure total force readiness.”

The fiscal year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act required the action. President Joe Biden, who said he opposed ending the mandate, nevertheless signed the act into law Dec. 23.

As of July 2022, the Air Force had discharged 834 Air Force and Space Force members for refusing the vaccine.

An Air Force spokeswoman said Wednesday that number — which includes active-duty, Reserve and National Guard personnel — has not been updated since July. July was when the Department of the Air Force received a court order to pause all disciplinary and adverse actions for those refusing the COVID-19 vaccine for religious reasons.

But now, no one serving in the armed forces will be separated from the military “solely” based on their refusal to get the vaccine if they sought an exemption on religious, administrative or medical grounds, Austin said in a memorandum Tuesday.

Those discharged for refusing the shot will not be automatically reinstated, but former service members may petition military department review boards to correct their personnel records, including records characterizing the nature of their discharge from the service.

The mandate is the subject of a federal lawsuit in which dozens of airmen who serve or have served at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base — among others — allege that the Air Force refused to grant exemptions from the mandate for reasons of religious belief.

In an order last year for the “Hunter Doster, et al. v. Hon Frank Kendall, et al.” lawsuit, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s order denying the federal government’s appeal to require a class of Air Force members to get the vaccines.

Doster is a first lieutenant working at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson.

It was not immediately clear how that case will be resolved in light of the DOD’s new action.

“We are assessing the rescission and the impact on the lawsuit,” Kentucky attorney Christopher Wiest told the Dayton Daily News.

Wiest represents plaintiffs suing the Air Force, arguing the service perfunctorily dismissed requests for exemptions for religious reasons from the vaccine mandate.

“I think (the DOD’s action) is likely to make parts of the lawsuit moot for airmen who have not (had) any adverse actions taken against them for not complying with the mandate. We are having ongoing discussions with the Department of Justice on these issues,” Wiest said. “I think we will know a lot more over the next couple weeks.”

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