Of 3,400 troops who’ve been involuntarily separated from service for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, about 70 percent have received general discharges, service personnel chiefs said Wednesday. That characterization secures their veterans benefits and, in many cases, allows them to rejoin the military if they decide to get vaccinated.
The remaining discharges have been honorable, officials told lawmakers during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, though they did not provide details explaining the reasoning behind choosing one characterization or the other.
In the fall, as the services announced their mandatory vaccination policies, a number of Republican lawmakers pushed back with concerns that troops might be given dishonorable discharges that could strip them of veterans benefits, as well as concerns that readiness would take a hit if thousands of service members were kicked out.
“I can tell you there are no operational impacts across the force for readiness,” Marine Corps Lt. Gen. David Ottignon told lawmakers. “There’s no one community that has signaled an instance where a [leader], an NCO or another enlisted Marine is not present because of that.”
The Marine Corps has, by far, kicked out the most service members: 1,968 total, 20% of whom received an honorable discharge. That amounts to just under 1% of the total force, which stands at about 215,000.
The Marine Corps has processed all of those discharges with a reenlistment code that would allow them to rejoin the Corps if they have a change of heart and get vaccinated.
At this point, he added, 97% of the force is fully vaccinated.
The Navy has discharged 798 sailors ― or 0.2% of the fleet ― all of whom received honorable discharges, according to Vice Adm. John Nowell. To date, 99% of the active force and 93% of the overall force are fully vaccinated.
The Army has separated 345 soldiers, Lt. Gen. Gary Brito told lawmakers, nine of them honorable and 36 general under honorable conditions. All of those soldiers are on the active duty side, constituting about 0.07% of the active Army. The service’s reserve component has until the end of June to be fully vaccinated.
The Air Force has separated 287 airmen so far, according to acting deputy manpower chief Gwendolyn DeFilippi, 2% of whom received honorable discharges. That accounts for about 0.04% of the Air Force.
The Space Force, which only has about 8,400 Guardians total, hasn’t had to separate anyone, she added, with a 98% vaccination rate across the Air Force Department.
For some of the still unvaccinated troops, a handful of lawsuits are working their way through the courts, putting a hold on potential discharges for the complainants until they are sorted out.
The plaintiffs filed suit accusing their respective services of unfairly denying religious exemption requests. To date, though the services have received tens of thousands of requests, the Air Force has only approved nine, the Marine Corps has approved three and the Army has approved one.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
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.