Pentagon Rescinds COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate, Questions Remain for Separated Sailors

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin officially rescinded the COVID-19 vaccine mandate Tuesday evening in a memo, stopping any more military separations due to refusal to get the shot series. Congress, through the National Defense Authorization Act 2023, ordered the Department of Defense to rescind the vaccine mandate, which Austin ordered in August 2021 upon FDA […]

Seaman Apprentice Johnnese Poomaihealani, from Waianae, Hawaii, receives a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot during a shot event in the foc’sle aboard USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) on Jan. 3, 2022. US Navy Photo

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin officially rescinded the COVID-19 vaccine mandate Tuesday evening in a memo, stopping any more military separations due to refusal to get the shot series.

Congress, through the National Defense Authorization Act 2023, ordered the Department of Defense to rescind the vaccine mandate, which Austin ordered in August 2021 upon FDA approval of the Pfizer version of the vaccine. The memo Tuesday officially ends the mandate after the DoD paused all activity around the mandate after President Joe Biden signed the NDAA into law. However, the memo does not address what will happen to sailors who were already separated due to failure to get the vaccine.

Now that the mandate is rescinded, the DoD will cease any investigations into service members who were not vaccinated or requested an exemption, including religious ones, according to the memo. The department will also update records of those currently serving to remove any adverse actions against them over their failure to get vaccinated under the mandate. This includes letters of reprimand.

The memo does not address whether service members who were already separated will be allowed back into the service. It does say they can petition for a change in the characterization of their discharge.

“For Service members administratively discharged on the sole basis that the Service member failed to obey a lawful order to receive a vaccine for COVID-19, the Department is precluded by law from awarding any characterization less than a general (under honorable conditions) discharge,” according to the memo. “Former Service members may petition their Military Department’s Discharge Review Boards and Boards for Correction of Military or Naval Records to individually request a correction to their personnel records, including records regarding the characterization of their discharge.”

The Department of Defense’s vaccination policies, outside of the now rescinded mandate, remain, according to the memo.

“These include the ability of commanders to consider, as appropriate, the individual immunization status of personnel in making deployment, assignment, and other operational decisions, including when vaccination is required for travel to, or entry into, a foreign nation,” according to the memo.

The department will continue to encourage service members to get the vaccine and the available boosters.

“Vaccination enhances operational readiness and protects the Force,” according to the memo. “All commanders have the responsibility and authority to preserve the Department’s compelling interests in mission accomplishment. This responsibility and authority includes the ability to maintain military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, and the health and safety of a resilient Joint Force.”

The Navy separated 2,089 active-duty sailors over the year that the COVID-19 vaccine was in effect, USNI News previously reported.