In January 2023, the Department of Defense (DoD) rescinded the August 2021 memorandum mandating the COVID-19 vaccination for all military personnel. This marks a significant shift in the military’s approach to managing the dwindling pandemic. The decision has raised numerous questions among service members regarding the implications of the lifted mandate, potential repercussions for those who refused the vaccine while it was required, and the overall impact this may have on the military.
Rescinding the COVID-19 Vaccination Mandate
The DoD announced the end of the COVID-19 vaccination mandate for military personnel, citing a decline in cases and the availability of preventive measures and treatments. This decision follows similar actions taken by the Army and Navy, both of which have lifted their respective vaccination requirements. As a result, service members are no longer required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of service, deployment, or participation in training exercises.
No Back Pay for Discharged Troops
Roughly 99% of all active-duty troops received the vaccine as directed. Still, more than 8,400 service members were discharged for refusing vaccination. All those who were kicked out received either a “general discharge under honorable conditions” or an even higher “honorable discharge.” The difference affects these veterans’ access to medical care and other benefits after leaving the military.
While Republican lawmakers say they are fighting to reinstate all dismissed service members with full benefits and back pay, officials are not looking into any such move at this time. Indeed, the Pentagon has confirmed that troops discharged for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine will not receive back pay or any other compensation. This decision maintains the military’s position that requiring service members to be vaccinated was a lawful order while the mandate was in effect and that those who refused to comply were subject to the consequences of their actions.
Potential Punishment for Troops Who Refused Vaccines
With the COVID-19 vaccine order lifted, service members can now refuse to get the shot without risking the end of their military careers. However, troops who refused the vaccine between August 2021 and January 2023 may still face punishment.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) states that service members who disobey a lawful order, including the vaccination mandate, can be charged under Article 92. Depending on the specific circumstances and the severity of the offense, punishments can range from counseling to court-martial proceedings.
Implications for Future Vaccination Orders
The end of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate raises questions about the potential for future vaccination requirements within the military. Service members must still receive certain vaccines, such as those for influenza, measles, and tetanus, to maintain the health and readiness of the force. The military may continue to implement new vaccination mandates as needed but will likely evaluate the necessity of each order on a case-by-case basis.
Service leaders have been instructed to rescind all COVID-19 vaccination policies by March 17, 2023, per a congressional mandate. This includes undoing any existing restrictions or pending separations for members who refused the shots. Anyone with pending exemption requests should also have their cases cleared and settled.
Despite this, legal challenges continue. Some cases have been dismissed or deemed moot in light of the rescinded mandate, but other lawsuits are still pending. Most of these cases focus on religious or medical exemptions sought by service members and may have broader implications for military policy.
Balancing Individual Rights and Military Readiness
The lifting of the COVID-19 vaccination mandate highlights the ongoing debate over individual rights and the military’s need to maintain readiness. As a military member navigating this new landscape, it’s essential to understand that you are subject to unique requirements prioritizing the health and safety of the entire force over any individual’s freedom. As a result, you should be prepared to comply with mandates that civilians are not subject to, even if they conflict with your personal beliefs.
Defend Yourself Against Article 92 Charges
The end of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for military members signals a new chapter in managing the pandemic within the armed forces. While the mandate has been rescinded, service members should remain aware of potential future vaccination requirements and prepare to defend against the consequences of previous non-compliance.
If you are being charged for failure to follow a lawful order under Article 92, or are facing other legal complications due to the vaccine mandate, turn to Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law. As a military lawyer with over a decade of experience defending servicemen and women, you can trust Mr. Jordan to provide exceptional legal counsel. Call us toll-free at 800-580-8034 or 254-221-6411 to speak with Mr. Jordan directly about the rescinded COVID-19 vaccine mandate.