Petty Officer 2nd Class Chanel Friday, a hospital corpsman assigned to the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, vaccinates a sailor against COVID-19 on Dec. 12, 2022, while on the Adriatic Sea.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Chanel Friday, a hospital corpsman assigned to the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, vaccinates a sailor against COVID-19 on Dec. 12, 2022, while on the Adriatic Sea. (Sasha Ambrose/U.S. Navy)

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The Pentagon on Tuesday announced the formal end of mandated vaccination of all members of the armed forces against COVID-19, a policy rollback required in the defense authorization bill passed last month.

The reversal, however, does nothing to change the status of the thousands of troops separated from service for refusing orders to take the vaccine.

“The Department will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all Service members,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a Tuesday memo, referring to the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

“The Department has made COVID-19 vaccination as easy and convenient as possible, resulting in vaccines administered to over two million Service members and 96 percent of the Force – Active and Reserve – being fully vaccinated,” Austin said.

Austin mandated the vaccinations for active-duty service members on Aug. 24, 2021, and for National Guard and Ready Reserve three months later on Nov. 30.

Treatment for and vaccination against COVID-19 became highly politicized under President Donald Trump’s administration in the months after the virus spread throughout the United States beginning in spring of 2020.

The Trump administration declined to mandate vaccination for U.S. troops, with many Republican lawmakers and some service members also against a mandate.

Upon taking office in early 2021, President Joe Biden took more aggressive steps in combating the spread of the coronavirus, including the mandate for armed forces later that year.

Republican opposition to the mandate remained, though, and negotiations between the GOP and Democrats last fall led to language in the final version of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act requiring an end to required vaccinations within 30 days of its passage.

More than 8,000 service members were separated from the armed forces for refusing to be vaccinated, according to a Washington Post report last month.

In Tuesday’s memo, Austin said no service member currently serving “shall be separated solely on the basis of their refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccination if they sought an accommodation on religious, administrative, or medical grounds.”

“The Military Departments will update the records of such individuals to remove any adverse actions solely associated with denials of such requests, including letters of reprimand,” Austin said.

Ongoing reviews of requests for exemption by service members for reasons of religious, administrative or medical accommodation will cease, he said.

Service members who were ousted from the armed services for refusing vaccination, however, will find little accommodation in the policy’s rescission.

“For Service members administratively discharged on the sole basis that the Service member failed to obey a lawful order to receive a vaccine for COVID-19, the Department is precluded by law from awarding any characterization less than a general (under honorable conditions) discharge,” Austin said.

Service members can petition their Military Department's Discharge Review Boards and Boards for Correction of Military or Naval Records to request changes regarding the characterization of their discharge, Austin said.

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.

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