- The Washington Times
Thursday, December 16, 2021

Nearly 4,000 U.S. soldiers have refused a COVID-19 vaccine and could be pushed out of the Army beginning next month, the Pentagon said Thursday as military officials grapple with the possibility that the controversy could lead to a mass purge from the ranks.

A day after its vaccination deadline Wednesday, the Army said 468,459 active-duty soldiers, or about 98%, had received at least one dose of a vaccine. About 96% of soldiers are fully vaccinated.

Even with the high level of compliance, however, 3,864 soldiers are unvaccinated and don’t have pending or approved exemptions. Those soldiers join thousands of Marines, airmen and sailors who also have refused COVID-19 immunization and appear prepared to lose their military careers, their benefits and even their enlistment bonuses rather than roll up their sleeves.

The unvaccinated have started to see consequences. The Army said Thursday that it had relieved six active-duty leaders from their posts, including two battalion commanders, for refusing to comply with the vaccine order.

The Marine Corps said it had “separated” 103 Marines who refused the vaccine. The Air Force discharged more than two dozen members this week for the same reason.

Thousands more across all services are headed for a similar fate despite repeated pleas from Pentagon leaders.

SEE ALSO: As Army hits mandate deadline, services ponder next moves

“To those who continue to refuse the vaccine and are not pending a final decision on a medical or administrative exemption, I strongly encourage you to get the vaccine. If not, we will begin involuntary separation proceedings,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said Thursday.

The latest figures from the Army, the largest U.S. military branch, raise the stakes for Pentagon leaders. Defense Department leaders are under intense fire for their apparent willingness to potentially kick out many thousands from the armed forces while the U.S. is preparing for a potential conflict with China in the Pacific, monitoring a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine and carrying out counterterrorism missions in the Middle East and Africa.

At the same time, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is facing a fierce vaccine battle on a second front. Five Republican governors this week sent Mr. Austin a letter saying he overstepped his authority by ordering all members of their states’ National Guards to get the vaccine.

Showdown with governors

The letter is part of an unfolding showdown between Mr. Austin and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican who said last month that he won’t enforce the Pentagon‘s vaccine mandate for National Guard personnel so long as they are under the governor’s command within the state. Mr. Austin responded by saying unvaccinated Guard troops can’t participate in training and subsequently won’t be paid.

The Republican governors of Iowa, Alaska, Wyoming, Mississippi and Nebraska argued in their letter this week that National Guard troops remain entirely under their authority unless they are called up to active-duty status, meaning Mr. Austin has limited authority over their medical decisions and their pay. That position seemingly puts a half-dozen Republican-led states on a legal collision course with the Biden administration, which appears fully willing to take its vaccine mandates to the courtroom.

Republican governors are framing the issue as a matter of freedom and national security.

“These are the very men and women who have selflessly devoted their lives to protecting us and responding to major disasters and times of crisis at the drop of a hat to provide peace and comfort, and now the federal government is giving them an ultimatum to get the vaccine or be separated from serving their country,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement this week. “It’s unconscionable to think the government will go so far as to strip these honorable men and women of the nation’s top duties if they don’t comply.”

The vaccine holdouts are also getting reinforcements from Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have sharply questioned Mr. Austin’s mandate.

Republican lawmakers successfully inserted a provision in the just-passed annual National Defense Authorization Act for 2022 that says military personnel who are mustered out of the service for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine must be honorably discharged or discharged under honorable conditions, making them technically eligible to receive veterans’ benefits.

Sen. Roger Marshall, Kansas Republican, last month called out the White House and the Pentagon for “a sledgehammer policy [that] says that one size has to fit all.”

Pentagon leaders argue that all unvaccinated troops, including those in the National Guard, are harming military readiness and endangering others in uniform. Those in uniform are required to be vaccinated against diseases other than COVID-19.

“These thousands that we’re talking about, they still have an opportunity to do the right thing, to do the right thing for themselves and their units,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Thursday. “We obviously hope they will. But if they don’t, it’s a lawful order and it has to be obeyed.”

Meanwhile, each military service is faced with an overwhelming number of waiver applications from service members seeking to stay in the ranks but avoid the shot.

So far, 6,263 active-duty soldiers have received temporary medical or administrative exemptions, the Army said. Four permanent medical exemptions have been approved, and 516 requests have been denied. Another 101 are under review.

At least 1,746 soldiers filed religious waiver applications. Eighty-five of those have been denied, and 1,661 are under review.

The Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force each received thousands of waiver applications from personnel who said the COVID-19 vaccination violated their religious or deeply held moral beliefs. So far, none has been approved, according to publicly available data.

In the Air Force, 7,365 members are unvaccinated, according to the most recent data. Of those, 1,060 have flatly refused, 1,549 have yet to start the vaccination process and 4,756 have filed religious waiver applications that are still being processed.

In the Navy, 5,472 sailors are unvaccinated. At least 2,751 of them have filed religious waiver requests, the Navy said Thursday in its weekly vaccination update.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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