Certain U.S. troops will still be mandated to receive COVID-19 vaccines, the Department of Defense (DoD) said in a recent memorandum.
Troops who are deployed to countries that require COVID-19 vaccination must satisfy the requirements, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said in the Feb. 24 document.
“The Department’s Foreign Clearance Guide will be updated to reflect that DoD personnel must continue to respect any applicable foreign nation vaccination entry requirements, including those for COVID-19,” Hicks said.
“Other than to comply with DoD Foreign Clearance Guidance, DoD Component heads and commanders will not require a Service member or group of Service members to be vaccinated against COVID-19, nor consider a Service member’s COVID-19 immunization status in making deployment, assignment, and other operational decisions, absent establishment of a new immunization requirement in accordance with the process described below,” she also said.
Military rules (pdf) have been altered to include a new section that states a secretary of a military department, a director of a defense agency or field activity that operates medical clinics, or a commandant of the Coast Guard can submit requests to the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs for approval to mandate COVID-19 vaccines.
The officials are told that they can submit requests “for approval to initiate, modify, or terminate mandatory immunizations of personnel and voluntary immunizations of other eligible beneficiaries determined to be at risk from the effects of deliberately released biological agents or naturally occurring infectious diseases of military or national importance.”
Hicks said she expected any such requests “will be made judiciously and only when justified by compelling operational needs and will be as narrowly tailored as possible.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin imposed a military-wide mandate in August 2021 after U.S. regulators approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. The order stemmed from a need for “military readiness,” Austin said.
U.S. lawmakers in 2022 inserted a provision in the recent defense funding bill to force Austin to rescind the mandate, and President Joe Biden signed the legislation.
The bill said that Austin must rescind the mandate no later than 30 days after enactment. The military complied with the requirement in January.
Austin said in his rescission memo that commanders still had the ability to consider troops’ vaccination status in making operational decisions.
Hicks, in the new memo, ordered component heads to formally rescind all policies related to the mandate “as soon as possible” and to certify to the Pentagon that they have done so by March 17.
The Marine Corps rescinded the requirement in a January memo.
“Pursuant to [Pentagon] guidance, the Marine Corps is no longer subject to a Defense Department-wide COVID-19 vaccination mandate,” a spokesperson told The Epoch Times via email. “Commanders have discontinued administrative separations processing of Marines solely for declining to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.”
The Navy removed the mandate on Jan. 23, and has since specified “that under no circumstances shall a Commander mandate any Navy service member receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” a spokesperson told The Epoch Times in an email.
Navy guidance also states that “COVID-19 vaccination status shall not be a consideration in assessing individual service member suitability for deployment or other operational missions” but that commanders retain authority to “restrict movement of service members in order to comply with host nation quarantine regulations.”
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall on Jan. 23 (pdf) informed commanders that his order implementing Austin’s mandate was rescinded. The Air Force on Feb. 24 said that it would remove information such as letters of admonishment over vaccine refusal from records of members who weren’t kicked out and who had sought a vaccine mandate exemption.
That same day, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth announced the removal of all policies associated with the mandate. That included ordering the removal of adverse information from the records of soldiers who requested exemptions, and the designation of all such requests as resolved.
Still, Wormuth noted that other policies that may impact the unvaccinated remain in effect.
Austin said in his memo rescinding the mandate that no military personnel “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 did not mention personnel who did not receive a vaccine and are still in the military. Many who refused the vaccination order, including some who applied for accommodation and were rejected, have been honorably discharged.
Not Addressing Harms
Sean Timmons, a military law attorney with Tully Rinckey, said the military isn’t addressing the harms caused by the mandate.
“They’re trying to erase the string of what occurred but at the same time they’re not addressing—and they’re trying to avoid—the issue regarding everybody’s career that they ruined,” Timmons told The Epoch Times.
Members who were removed should be reinstated, he said, noting that the military has been struggling with recruitment since imposing the mandate.
Military officials have said that discharged members violated a lawful order and have said they will not be reinstated, though they have been considering back pay.
Multiple judges have concluded that at least some members who applied for religious accommodation were treated unlawfully, Timmons noted.
He’s representing multiple members in cases that are still ongoing despite the end of the mandate, including Army Maj. Samuel Sigoloff, who was punished for handing out COVID-19 vaccine exemptions.
Under the mandate, most troops did get a vaccine. Members of Congress say the military had a good opportunity to collect data on vaccine effectiveness and safety because of the wide uptake.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) and 19 other doctors with medical backgrounds asked Austin in August 2022 if the military was collecting the data. The answer didn’t come until Jan. 26, and it was a brief reply (pdf) that merely stated the mandate had been removed.
Wenstrup admonished Austin on Feb. 27 (pdf), saying the response was inadequate.
“From your response, it is clear that this letter was not carefully reviewed nor were the questions carefully considered,” Wenstrup said. He urged Austin to provide the requested answers by March 6.