After the Republicans used the passage of defense legislation last month as a means to force Democrats to drop the mandatory Covid-19 vaccine for all military personnel, the Pentagon released a memo from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Tuesday evening that formally repealed the mandate.
Austin's memo rescinds the mandate for active duty, the National Guard, and the Reserves.
The repeal comes after an order from Austin on August 24, 2021, in which he mandated that all military personnel be full-vaccinated or be discharged from military duty.
Prior to the lifting of the mandate, some 8,400 troops were discharged, with tens of thousands applying for accommodation requests, including for medical, administrative, or religious reasons. Tens of thousands of reservists, allegedly up to 60,000, remained unvaccinated and were set to be discharged as well. The mass discharges came as the military has faced a serious recruiting crisis in recent years.
In an escalation of the battle between the military and leadership, forces successfully sued to temporarily enjoin the Navy, Air Force, and Marines from taking action against individuals who had applied for religious accommodations. The inspector general for the Pentagon also sent a memo to Austin indicating that blanket denials of religious accommodation requests flirted with breaking the law.
Some troops took a different tactic and fought the mandate on the basis that the DOD can only mandate FDA-approved vaccines, which some of the Covid vaccines at the time were not. The claim argued that the military was using a form of the vaccine that was under the Emergency Use Authorization provision and not FDA pre-approved. Then-DOD official, Terri Adirim, replied in another memo the two vaccines were interchangeable.
Despite the repeated challenges from troops and the massive loss of forces, the Biden administration refused to back down and reverse the mandate until House and Senate Republicans used the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes defense spending, to strong-arm the administration into repealing the mandate. In a statement released in conjunction with Austin's memo, the Pentagon said, "This recession requirement was established by the James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023."
The Pentagon's statement continued, "The health and readiness of the Force are crucial to the Department's ability to defend our nation. Secretary 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."
Austin's memo stated, "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."
The memo went on to clarify that the military would also remove adverse actions that were solely associated with denials of accommodation requests for troops, including any letters of reprimand, which could be career-ending.
The memo also noted that the military would stop any current reviews of accommodation requests for service members.
The correspondence did include a section indicating that the DOD would still take action against unvaccinated troops saying, "Other standing Departmental policies, procedures, and processes regarding immunization remain in effect. These include 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."
Austin concluded his memo by noting that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness would be issuing additional guidance to "ensure uniform implementation" of the memo. Recently, the Coast Guard and Army have both issued guidance only to have it retracted hours later. It just goes to show that the military leadership has never considered any alternatives to the vaccine mandate.
Meanwhile, Republicans have vowed to fight for the reinstatement of discharged troops with backpay in 2023. The question remains though, how many discharged service members will return to a military that denied their civil liberties, attempted to silence their voices, and turned its back on them? Unfortunately, the answer is probably, too few. Austin's memo is like Biden's border visit - too little, too late.
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