With the recent passage and signing of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, the requirement that all service members receive a COVID-19 vaccination has been rescinded. The Department of Defense (DoD) has already begun taking quick action to remove these policies and issue new orders to command in order to help the armed forces reset to their pre-COVID operating procedures. While service members still have lingering questions about how these new policies will impact their eligibility to serve or their ability to seek some recourse, the DoD’s recent policy memo, “Recission of August 24, 2021 and November 30, 2021 Coronavirus Disease 2019 Vaccination Requirements for Members of the Armed Forces,” answers some of those questions.
Regardless, many questions still remain when it comes to how the recission of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate will impact service members. Just because the mandate has been lifted does not imply it is the end-all-be-all for current legal battles, and those that did suffer because of it will likely look to seek some form of compensation or be reinstated in some capacity.
The past few years have demonstrated if anything, that it will be difficult for service members to obtain relief after having their request for a medical, administrative, or religious exemption denied. While this wasn’t the first time the government has required service members to take a mandatory vaccine that service members hoped to avoid, knowing what options are available to you is crucial when making decisions related to your career and personal health.
According to the new policy, service members cannot be discharged “solely on the basis of their refusal to undergo the COVID-19 immunization if they requested an accommodation for religious, administrative, or medical reasons.” Furthermore, the policy directs the Secretaries of the Military Departments to discontinue any continuing reviews for service members who are still awaiting a decision on an administrative, medical, or religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Having stated that, all other departmental immunization policies and practices will continue to be in force. When deciding whether to deploy, assign, or make other operational choices, the departments still have the right to evaluate a service member’s immunization status.
The new policy mandates the erasure of bad paperwork for the thousands of service members who had their requests denied and received reprimands. However, doubts remain for those who received a reprimand and were prevented from favorable personnel actions such as promotion, as well as those officers who were two-time non-selects for promotion to the next higher grade as a result of that bad paperwork.
The policy also directs the thousands of service members who have already been separated due to their refusal of the COVID-19 vaccine to apply to their individual Military Department’s Discharge Review Boards if they obtained a classification of service of Under Other Than Honorable Conditions. For these individuals, there are still unanswered questions regarding their right to reenlist after separation when the only reason for their separation was a refusal to be vaccinated. People who want to modify their RE code must submit a petition to the Board for the Correction of Military/Naval Records for their relevant branch.
While it is still unclear as to all of the avenues for recourse service members will have when it comes to seeking some sort of compensation for what the government has done to them, service members who were personally impacted by the vaccine mandate should keep a close eye on any developments or new policies released by the DoD to best restore their careers and get what they deserve.
Watch our recent webinar for an overview of what options are available for military personnel, and the potential ramifications for not taking the COVID-19 vaccine.
Since the vaccine mandate announcement, Tully Rinckey’s military law attorneys have been providing commentary to news and media outlets across the country. Please see the news stories and articles below featuring our attorneys:
For over 15 years, Tully Rinckey attorneys have assisted service members from all branches of the military. Our military law team were service members long before they became attorneys. They know the military, they know the law, and are ready to fight hard on your behalf. If you have issues taking the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine, you do have options, and our team of military lawyers is here to assist you every step of the way.