It’s official: After Congress forced the Defense Department to roll back its controversial order that all troops receive COVID-19 vaccines, the Marine Corps on Wednesday dropped its mandate.
“Commanders will immediately discontinue administrative separation processing of Marines solely on the grounds that they refused to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” a Marine administrative message stated.
As of Dec. 1, 2022, 96% of both active-duty and reservist Marines were fully vaccinated, according to a COVID-19 update from the Corps. But when the vaccines first became available to Marines, in spring 2021, only 61% of them took it, according to Pentagon data.
And as of December 2022, 3,717 Marines had been separated for refusing the vaccine, according to the update from the Corps.
Congress included a provision ending the August 2021 COVID-19 vaccine mandate for service members in the annual defense spending bill it passed in December 2022. Although White House representatives said they weren’t happy about the provision, President Joe Biden signed the bill later that month.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Jan. 10 issued a memo directing the services to end COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Former troops who received discharges lower than “general (under honorable conditions)” for refusing the vaccine can petition their services to upgrade their discharges, according to Austin’s memo.
Left unanswered in the Marine Corps announcement is whether unvaccinated Marines will still be considered undeployable. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, who is responsible for both the Navy and the Marine Corps, said in December 2022 that rescinding the mandate would “create almost two classes of citizens in our services: those that can’t deploy and those that can deploy,” Defense One reported.
The MARADMIN said more guidance on implementing the rollback would come in a future Marine Corps administrative message.
“The Marine Corps continues to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all Marines,” Capt. Ryan Bruce, a Marine Corps spokesman, told Marine Corps Times.
Military medical facilities will continue offering the COVID-19 vaccines, including the bivalent booster, according to Bruce.
The Marine Corps mandate, and its practice of denying almost all requests for religious accommodations, has been controversial from the moment it was instituted.
Joined by service members from other branches, a group of Marines who had been denied religious accommodations from the vaccine filed a lawsuit in 2021 claiming that their religious liberty was being violated. In August 2022 a federal judge sided with them, issuing a preliminary injunction that blocked the Corps from separating Marines who already had requested religious accommodations.
Gen. David Berger, the Marine commandant, said in December 2022 that the mandate was negatively affecting recruitment, especially in the South.
“There’s still myths and misbeliefs about the backstory behind it,” Berger said at the time.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.