Last fall, following a Pentagon announcement that the COVID-19 vaccine would become mandatory for troops, the services set about implementing policy around it, including deadlines for vaccination and consequences for refusal.
That left a period of several weeks where recruits were able to join the military and refuse a COVID-19 vaccine without needing a waiver. The services are now discharging hundreds who have completed or are still in training but are refusing to get vaccinated.
Much has been made about the fact that there are over a dozen vaccines that the military mandates more than a dozen vaccines, based on risk. Ten of those — now including COVID-19 — are administered at basic training.
But for the last three months of the year ― following Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s Aug. 23 announcement that, with Pfizer’s Food and Drug Administration approval, vaccination would be mandatory ― unvaccinated troops have been in limbo.
That includes anyone who shipped after the announcement and made it through training unvaccinated, as well as those who joined earlier in the year thinking that the vaccine might never become mandatory.
There are also troops who finished training in late summer and headed off to their first units unvaccinated, who are now subject to separation if they don’t change their minds.
Following the announcement, the services developed their own enforcement policies. While they eventually all came to require recruits to be vaccinated, or have an approved exemption, before shipping, there was a period of roughly six weeks where new recruits were shipping unvaccinated and un-exempted.
None of the services addressed Military Times’ question as to why there was a lag time while the service-wide vaccine policies were implemented, despite knowing that the Defense Department was weighing a mandate.
On Aug. 9, Austin put out a memo to the force, announcing that he intended to ask President Biden to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory in mid-September, if the FDA hadn’t granted any full approvals by then. The expectation at the time, he said, was that licensure would come in early September.
“The intervening few weeks will be spent preparing for this transition,” he wrote. “I have every confidence that Service leadership and your commanders will implement this new vaccination program with professionalism, skill, and compassion. We will have more to say about this as implementation plans are fully developed.”
But when the Aug. 23 announcement came, the services were not ready to implement immediately..
Time and money
Trainees have made up most of the first wave of separations, in part, because it’s a particularly simple process: There is a type of discharge created specifically to wash out people who aren’t performing or adapting during initial entry training, and it requires much less red tape than separating someone who’s been serving for years.
The cost to recruit and train a new service member varies, but the Army ― the largest service ― estimates it spends about $15,000 to bring someone into the service and another $50,000 to $75,000 to prepare them to join their first unit, depending on their job.
That service alone has flagged 173 trainees who have refused to get vaccinated, according to an Army spokesman, with another 203 awaiting exemptions and 177 being counseled with the hope they change their minds.
On the low end, that’s more than $11 million spent just on Army recruits who will be discharged without ever reporting to a unit.
“We do not have data on when they were recruited,” Lt. Col. Terence Kelley told Military Times on Friday, adding that because the Army has not yet released its separation policy for the COVID-19 vaccine, discharges have not begun.
Army initial entry training lasts between 14 weeks to well over a year, depending on occupational specialty. It’s possible that trainees who joined in late 2020 or in the first eight months of 2021, when vaccines rolled out on a completely voluntary basis, are still in the basic training pipeline.
For infantrymen, the Army’s largest specialty, initial training lasts 22 weeks, meaning current trainees could have shipped all the way back in July. Early that month, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said during a briefing that the Defense Department was considering mandatory vaccines as soon as the FDA approved one.
The Army has been requiring COVID-19 vaccination for new recruits since mid-September, Kelley said, and holding anyone back from reporting to their first unit until they’re vaccinated or have secured an exemption.
Prospective troops arriving at military entrance processing stations have to a sign an acknowledgement that the COVID-19 vaccine is mandatory. If they don’t, they can be sent home, or apply for a waiver that must be approved before shipping.
This is the way the services handle any type of individual vaccine refusal, from chicken pox to hepatitis B, despite the political and cultural lightning rod the COVID-19 shot has become.
If a recruit refuses to be vaccinated at all, they can be sent home. If the opposition is to one vaccine, they can apply for a waiver and wait until it’s approved before starting training.
The Air Force took a similar tack. Starting in October, trainees had to get a waiver approved before shipping if they intended to refuse the vaccine.
Some, of course, were able to slip in before that. So far, the Air Force has discharged nearly 40 trainees, 23 of whom were in the basic phase, while the others had gone on to technical schools, according to spokeswoman Rose Riley.
“If they refused the COVID-19 vaccine, their squadron commander issued a written order stating they must receive the vaccination,” she said. “If they refused a second time, meaning they had now disobeyed an order twice, they were processed for an entry level separation.”'
All of the trainees already separated came into the service in September and October, Riley added, so the service doesn’t anticipate any further discharges of trainees.
The Navy announced Jan. 6 that it had discharged 20 trainees for vaccine refusal, though a Navy spokesman could not say specifically when they shipped to boot camp.
The service has received 19 requests for religious exemptions from recruits so far, according to Lt. Cmdr. Devin Arneson, but has granted none, meaning there may be more discharges coming.
Both the Navy and the Marine Corps started requiring their recruits to sign the COVID-19 vaccine attestation in October.
For the Corps, that has meant 47 discharges since September, according to spokesman Capt. Andrew Wood, though he could not say how many of them had applied for exemptions.
“There are currently zero Marine recruits with approved administrative or medical exemptions and zero Marine recruits with pending requests for Religious Accommodation,” he said.
Asked Friday whether the delay in implementation was an oversight or simply the cost of doing business, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby described the effort as a “rudder shift.”
But mandatory vaccines are not new for the military, and neither is acknowledging in writing that they are mandatory before shipping to basic training. In effect, the services just had to add COVID-19 to the existing list.
“The secretary felt it was important to give the services time to prepare for that and to implement that,” Kirby said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT