WASHINGTON (AP) — The military services are still reviewing possible discipline of troops who refused the order to get the COVID-19 vaccine, defense officials told Congress on Tuesday, and they provided few details on how many of those who were forced out of the military would like to return.
Lawmakers expressed frustration with the news, questioning why service members should still face discipline since the vaccine requirement had been rescinded.
Gilbert Cisneros Jr., undersecretary of defense for personnel, told the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee that some service members who disobeyed the lawful order to get the vaccine — and did not seek any type of exemption — were still going through the review process.
“In order to maintain good order and discipline, it’s very important that our service members go and follow orders when they are lawful,” said Cisneros, adding that military services were going through each case to evaluate what should be done.
The vaccine mandate divided Americans and has remained a contentious political issue. More than 8,400 troops were forced out of the military for refusing to obey a lawful order when they declined to get the vaccine. Thousands of others sought religious and medical exemptions.
The Pentagon formally dropped the mandate in January, as a result of legislation signed into law in late December. But a number of discipline cases were pending when the requirement was rescinded.
Cisneros and top officials from the Army, Navy and Air Force told the subcommittee that in some cases troops may have committed other misconduct in addition to the vaccine refusal, so each case was being reviewed.
“What’s the point?” said Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., the subcommittee chairman. “We rescinded the mandate — what’s the point of continuing to review the cases?”
Banks said that a number of lawmakers were “infuriated by the double standard and message you send for rescinding a policy and still punishing them for not taking the vaccine.”
Lawmakers also pressed the defense officials on whether troops who were discharged were being allowed to return to service.
Erik Raven, the Navy undersecretary, was the only one who provided any estimate, saying that “we’ve had single digits in terms of numbers of individuals who have explored the option of returning to service.” It wasn’t clear if those individuals had formally sought reenlistment or merely asked about it.
Raven, along with Gina Ortiz Jones, the Air Force undersecretary, and Gabe Camarillo, the Army undersecretary, all told lawmakers that service members can go through the regular process for reinstatement. In most cases they will need to go to a review board to have their discharge status changed, and then they can seek to reenlist. They would have to meet all other enlistment standards.
Rep. Cory Mills, R-Fla., said he will push to allow those who were “unlawfully purged, in my opinion, to be reentered into the military with their full benefits, their back pay, and be granted what they should have been given, which is the chance to serve our United States military.”
Any move to provide back pay or other retroactive benefits would have to be addressed through legislation.
Lawmakers also questioned the impact of the discharges on the military, including whether it forced out many pilots. Jones said that only 40 Air Force officers were discharged for refusing the vaccine order, and another 14 opted to retire voluntarily. All the rest were enlisted personnel. Air Force pilots are all officers.
Overall, according to data compiled by the military as of late last year, the Marine Corps leads the services with 3,717 Marines discharged for refusing to follow the vaccine order. There have been 2,041 discharged from the Navy, 1,841 from the Army and 834 from the Air Force. The Air Force data includes the Space Force.
Defense officials have also suggested that in many cases those who refused the order and were discharged were in the very early stages of their military enlistment.