Service members who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19 would not face dishonorable or other-than-honorable discharges under a plan approved by a House panel on Wednesday.
The troops could still be forced from the ranks, but would receive honorable discharges. Supporters said the idea is to ensure those individuals aren’t given a lifelong mark on their military record because of personal concerns about the vaccine.
“I believe that the military should be able to require these vaccines, and I think every person of sound judgment in this country should take a vaccine,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala. and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. “However, if somebody in good faith in the military says they can’t do it, they shouldn’t be stained for the rest of their lives with a dishonorable discharge.”
The proposal was included with Democratic and Republican support in the committee’s draft of the annual defense authorization bill, a massive budget policy measure that has passed every year for more than five decades.
Amendment sponsor Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn. and an Army veteran, said that an other-than-honorable dismissal “significantly impacts an individual for the rest of their lives, including future employment … We should not destroy their lives for this.”
The move comes about a month after Pentagon leaders announced plans to make the vaccine mandatory for all service members. Navy and Marine officials announced this week that sailors and Marines will need to be vaccinated in the next 90 days or risk punishment. Army and Air Force officials have yet to announce a timeline.
Just under 60 percent of the force has received at least one vaccine, per data released by the Defense Department last week.
Troops who refuse can face various types of punishment, including dismissal from the service.
“Many Americans have reservations about taking a vaccine that has only been available for less than a year,” the bill language states. “Reports of adverse actions being taken or threatened by military leadership at all levels are antithetical to our fundamental American values.”
Other types of reprimand besides dismissals, such as reductions in rank, would still be allowed under the measure.
Democrats on the committee expressed some reservations about reductions in punishment for insubordinate troops at a time of a national health crisis, but ultimately agreed with Green’s proposal. But they said they hoped it would not discourage vaccine acceptance.
“What we’re asking servicemembers to do now is to take a shot to protect their fellow Americans,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash.
“It is just baffling that service members don’t sign up for that. You put your life on the line to protect the country, but you won’t take a shot to protect the country? It’s something that as long as I live I will never understand.”
The authorization bill still needs to survive a full House vote and negotiations with the Senate before it can be sent to the president to become law. That process is expected to take several more months.
Meanwhile, dismissals for vaccine refusals could begin within the next few weeks. Lawmakers did not say whether they would push to make the provision retroactive if other-than-honorable dismissals take place before the legislative language becomes law.
At least 34 service members have died from coronavirus-related illnesses since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020. Nearly 640,000 Americans have died from virus complications.
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.