Defense officials would be required to grant honorable dismissals to nearly all troops who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine and grant waivers to troops with “natural immunity” to the virus under new legislation introduced by Republican senators on Tuesday.
The proposal — led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and backed by 13 other GOP colleagues — would also mandate that military leaders “make every effort to retain members of the Armed Forces who are not vaccinated” and broaden religious exemptions for the vaccine mandate.
The measure likely faces a difficult path to becoming law, since Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House. But supporters said the move is needed to protect troops’ rights and ability to keep serving the nation.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that [President Joe Biden’s] administration is trying to coerce our men and women in uniform to violate their conscience and religious beliefs, let alone on an issue as polarizing as the COVID-19 vaccine,” Cruz said in a statement.
Last month, defense officials told Congress that about 3,400 troops have been involuntarily separated from service for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, mandated last fall for all military members.
Of that group, about 70% have received general discharges, a designation that allows them to receive most veterans benefits and potentially rejoin the military at a later date.
The other 30% have received honorable discharges. Congress last year forbade military leaders from issuing dishonorable discharges for vaccine refusal.
But the new Senate bill would go even further, mandating an honorable discharge for individuals who refuse the vaccine and upgrading the dismissal status to honorable for the roughly 2,400 troops given general discharges already.
The measure also called for an exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine requirement for “members with natural immunity,” although the legislation does not define the term.
Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that contracting COVID-19 may offer some protection from future illness, but the length and strength of that protection remains unclear.
To date, the military services have granted only a small number of vaccine waivers for religious objections. The new bill would broaden that and call for a report on how religious objections have been handled by service leaders so far.
Opponents to the vaccine mandate have called it a potential recruiting and retention disaster for the Defense Department.
However, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 27, officials from the five services insisted they have seen no readiness impacts from the requirement so far. They framed the vaccine mandate as critical to the health and safety of the force.
As of the start of May, about 73% of the entire armed forces is fully vaccinated, with another 14% partially vaccinated. Among active-duty troops, the number was close to 100%. The figures are expected to rise in the next two months as the deadline for the Army Reserve and National Guard arrives in late June.
The military vaccination issue is likely to be a point of debate in congressional work on the the annual defense authorization bill in coming weeks.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.