Congress-Passed Bill Requires Pentagon to Consider Reinstating Members Removed Over COVID Vaccine Mandate

Congress-Passed Bill Requires Pentagon to Consider Reinstating Members Removed Over COVID Vaccine Mandate


U.S. military officials praised the bill but did not comment on the portions relating to vaccines.

The defense bill just passed by Congress includes a requirement that the U.S. military consider reinstating former members who were removed for refusing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

A secretary of a military branch must consider reinstating former members who ask to be reinstated within two years of their separation, according to the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act passed by both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill.

Former members must have been involuntarily separated from the armed forces “solely on the basis of the refusal of such individual to receive a vaccination against COVID-19” and have submitted a request for an exemption, whether on religious, medical, or administrative grounds.

The requirement is only for consideration of reinstatement. It does not force the military to reinstate former members.

“We were told over and over again that there would be back pay and reparations and restoration of rank for those people who were improperly told that they could not express their patriotism through military service because they didn’t want to take an experimental vaccine. That is totally absent in this legislation,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said on the House floor on Dec. 14. “So in communities like mine that are military-heavy, the 5 percent pay increase will be very welcome, but every one of our military families knows someone who now is not able to have their job, who’s seen impact to their spouses, to their marriages, to their children because of this mandate. And we ought to have really taken care of those great folks. We didn’t in this bill.”

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Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), on the other hand, urged colleagues to vote for the bill in part because he described it as including a “path back to service for those discharged over COVID-19 vaccine.”

The Pentagon declined to answer before the bill was passed whether the military would reinstate any members, citing its policy of not commenting on proposed legislation. The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment following the bill’s passage.

In a briefing Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said the Department of Defense applauded the passage, highlighting how the bill included pay raises for service members and civilian employees and “directly invests in America’s national security and military power projection to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

Mr. Ryder did not comment on the portions of the legislation relating to vaccines. No reporters at the briefing asked him about those portions.

The Pentagon has previously said it might pay former troops removed for refusing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but has not paid those former troops as of yet.

If former members are reinstated, the bill directs the time between separation and reinstatement to be treated as a period of inactivation from active service, as defined by federal law. The former members would also be reinstated to the grade that they held immediately before being removed.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin imposed the COVID-19 vaccine mandate in 2021. Almost all members received a vaccine. But thousands did not, and more than 8,000 troops were kicked out for non-compliance.

Congress previously forced the military to withdraw the mandate, but did not compel reinstatement. Mr. Austin, after being forced to rescind the mandate, told military officials to remove letters of reprimand and other punishment from files of troops still in the force who asked for an exemption and did not receive a vaccine.

Multiple courts found that the military violated federal law in processing religious exemption requests, though one of those rulings was thrown out this week by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Army said recently that 19 of the removed members have returned to the branch, while an Air Force spokesperson said a single one of the members has rejoined.

Other Parts

Other parts of the $886.3 billion defense also touch on vaccines.

The bill requires a board to be established for the purpose of reviewing the discharge of former members who were kicked out over vaccine refusal, provided the refusal was the sole reason the individuals were discharged.

The board will be established by Mr. Austin and consist of five members.

The bill also requires Mr. Austin and other top officials to communicate to the people who were discharged “the current, established, process by which a covered individual may be reinstated in the covered Armed Force concerned.” That must be done within six months of the bill being enacted.

Another portion requires Mr. Austin to run a study that will evaluate “health conditions” arising in members following receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The study shall examine the number of instances of each condition among the active force and also compile the number of events that occurred in the population in the three years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr. Austin must report the results of the study within one year of the act’s enactment. Three subsequent annual reports are also required.

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