The Pentagon withdraws the vaccination mandate against Covid-19 for troops

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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has formally abandoned its Covid-19 vaccination mandate on Tuesday, but a new memo signed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also gives commanders some discretion over how or whether to deploy troops who are not vaccinated.

Austin’s memo has been widely anticipated since legislation signed into law on December 23 gave him 30 days to rescind the mandate. The Department of Defense had already halted all related personnel actions, such as the discharge of troops that deflected the shot.

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

Austin said commanders have the authority to maintain unit readiness and a healthy force. However, he added that other department policies, including mandates for other vaccines, remain in effect. That includes, he said, «the ability of commanders to consider, as appropriate, the individual immunization status of personnel when 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 the United States, forced more than 8,400 military service members to leave the armed forces for refusing to obey a lawful order when they refused to receive the vaccine. Thousands of others sought religious and medical exemptions. Austin’s memorandum puts an end to those waiver requests.

Austin, who instituted the mandate in August 2021 after the Food and Drug Administration approved Pfizer’s vaccine and as the coronavirus pandemic raged, stood firm in his desire to keep 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 abroad, had had to receive as many as 17 different vaccinations. No other vaccination mandates were affected by the new law.

But Congress agreed to rescind the mandate, with opponents grudgingly saying he may have already managed to vaccinate most of the force. Approximately 99% of active duty troops in the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps had received the vaccine, and 98% of the Army. Guard and Reserve rates are lower, but are generally over 90%.

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

In addition to ending efforts to discharge troops who refuse the vaccine, the Austin memo says those who applied for waivers and were denied will have their records updated and warning letters removed.

Those who were discharged for refusing to obey a legal order to receive the vaccine received an honorable discharge or a general discharge under honorable conditions. Austin’s memo says anyone who has been discharged can request a change to their «discharge characterization» from their military service in their personnel records. However, it does not say what possible corrections could be granted.

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

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

Military leaders fear that if troops start refusing the vaccine in large numbers, similar outbreaks could occur. The risk is particularly high on small ships or submarines where service members huddle in close quarters for weeks or months at a time, or on critical combat missions, such as those involving special operations forces deploying in small teams.

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

What’s unclear is whether the services, facing recruiting challenges, will be willing, or 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 the draft. Defense officials have responded by saying that while it may help a bit, a department poll over the first nine months of last year found that a large majority said the mandate did not change the likelihood that they would consider enlisting.

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