A U.S. Air Force sergeant receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Osan Air Base in Dec. 2020 in South Korea. Photo: United States Forces Korea via Getty Images

The Pentagon on Tuesday rescinded its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, but is giving commanders some discretion in the deployment of unvaccinated troops, according to a memo from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin obtained by AP.

Why it matters: The move could help the Pentagon boost enrollment numbers while not having to remove troops for not complying.

Context: Congress used its annual defense policy bill last month to scrap the mandate a year after it was instated, with some Republican governors and members of Congress arguing it’s unfair to force troops to decide between getting the vaccine and potentially being expelled from the military.

What they’re saying: “The Department will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all service members,” Austin said, per the memo.

  • “Vaccination enhances operational readiness and protects the force.”

Of note: Commanders will have some discretion to decide whether to deploy troops who are not vaccinated, “including when vaccination is required for travel to, or entry into, a foreign nation,” the memo states.

Background: In August 2021, Austin announced that all troops were required to get the coronavirus vaccine or face potential expulsion.

  • He doubled down last month, saying the policy should be maintained because it has kept people healthy.

By the numbers: More than 11,500 members of the Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as of last month.

  • But 97% of the Army’s active personnel has received the vaccine.

Pentagon mulls back pay for troops kicked out over Covid vaccine mandate

The Pentagon is considering providing back pay to former service members who were discharged for refusing to get the Covid-19 vaccine, now that the mandate has been repealed, according to a spokesperson.

The Defense Department formally rescinded the mandate in a memo from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday, after lawmakers directed the Pentagon to do so in the annual defense policy bill that passed into law in December. The military had already stopped discharging troops who refused the shot.

Austin’s memo opened the door to reinstating troops who believe they were wrongfully let go, stipulating that service members and veterans may apply to correct their records. While the military has not yet made a decision on providing back pay to service members for the time that they were discharged, a spokesperson said the department is looking into it.

“Regarding back pay, the Department is still exploring this and will provide its views on legislation of this nature at the appropriate time and through the appropriate process,” said Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Charlie Dietz in a Friday email to POLITICO.

Providing back pay would be a win for Republicans who railed against the vaccine mandate. Last year, a bloc of GOP senators, led by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, won a fight to repeal the policy after threatening to stall the annual defense policy bill if they didn’t receive a vote on ending the mandate and reinstating troops with back pay.

The measure defied the wishes of both the Pentagon and the White House, who said they wanted to retain the mandate. But while the directive was repealed, it stopped short of requiring the Pentagon to reinstate troops who were let go for refusing the shot or give them back pay.

Austin’s memo directed that no service members will be separated solely on the basis of refusing to get the Covid-19 shot if they “sought an accommodation on religious, administrative or medical grounds,” and that the military will remove any “adverse actions,” including letters of reprimand, stemming from their refusal.

However, the memo states that commanders have the authority to consider troops’ immunization status in making decisions on deployments, assignments, or travel to a foreign nation.

More than 8,400 troops were kicked out of the military for refusing the vaccine. Thousands of others sought religious and medical exemptions, many of which were still pending when DoD rescinded the mandate. Austin’s memo directed the military services to cease reviewing those cases.

The Pentagon has administered vaccines to more than two million service members, and 96 percent of the force, including both the active duty and reserve, is fully vaccinated, Austin wrote in the memo. Roughly 99 percent of active-duty troops in the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are vaccinated, as well as 98 percent of the Army.

Even some Democrats conceded that the mandate may no longer make sense, given the state of the pandemic and the fact that most troops are already vaccinated.

“I was a very strong supporter of the vaccine mandate when we did it,” House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told POLITICO in an interview. “But at this point in time, does it make sense to have that policy from August 2021?”

A day after the mandate was repealed, former Vice President Mike Pence in a Wednesday interview called on President Joe Biden to reinstate and provide back pay to troops who were let go for refusing to get the shot. Pence called the mandate “unconscionable.”

“I think now that Secretary Austin has implemented what Congress passed into law, lifting the vaccine mandate on members of our armed forces, now I’m calling on the Biden administration and the Pentagon to reinstate every man and woman that was discharged from our armed forces because they refused to take the vaccine, and give them 100 percent back pay for the time after they were discharged,” Pence said.

 

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