A sailor receives the coronavirus vaccine at Naval Base San Diego’s Adm. James Prout gymnasium in January 2021.

A sailor receives the coronavirus vaccine at Naval Base San Diego’s Adm. James Prout gymnasium in January 2021. (Luke Cunningham/U.S. Navy)

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WASHINGTON — Military branches are continuing to review cases of service members who refused a coronavirus vaccine without asking for an exemption as the Defense Department nullifies its pandemic-era immunization policies, defense officials told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin rescinded the vaccine mandate last month at the direction of Congress but defense officials testifying before a House Armed Service Committee subpanel said service branches are still evaluating how to deal with troops who had defied orders.

“This is a new process for us and something we’re trying to figure out and we’ve been working on it,” said Gilbert Cisneros, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. “It’s very important that our service members go and follow orders when they are lawful and there are thousands who did not and so those services are going through a process to review those cases to make a determination of what needs to be done.”

About 8,100 service members were separated after failing to request or receive a religious exemption or other accommodation from the vaccine mandate and then refused to get vaccinated after being ordered to do so, he said. More than 2 million service members, about 96% of the military, have received the vaccine.

Cisneros did not say how many cases are being evaluated, but Gabe Camarillo, the undersecretary of the Army, said there are “a number” of pending cases of individual soldiers who chose not to comply with a lawful order.

“Each of these cases has to be evaluated on its own individual merits because they’re highly fact-specific,” Camarillo said. “There may be in any instance numerous violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice or other areas in which there might be circumstances in which to look at disciplinary procedures.”

Erik Raven, the undersecretary of the Navy, said the service will conduct an individualized review and is determined to “look at each of these cases on the merits of the facts of each case.” The service has a 97% coronavirus immunization rate.

Gina Ortiz Jones, the undersecretary of the Air Force, said the service is taking steps to remove adverse records for active-duty airmen and guardians who had applied for exemptions but were disciplined for refusing the vaccine. Those who did not apply for accommodations have to appeal to the Air Force’s board for military record correction, she said.

The Air Force separated 610 members over the mandate, Jones said. Forty officers voluntarily left service rather than get immunized and 14 officers retired in lieu of getting vaccinated, she said. About 98% of the service received the vaccine, including 99% of active-duty airmen and guardians.

Republican lawmakers led congressional efforts last year to rescind the vaccine mandate, and on Tuesday bemoaned the forced departure of thousands of service members. They argued the separations damaged morale and exacerbated the military’s recruiting problems, particularly in the Army, which missed its recruiting goal by 15,000 soldiers last year.

“We live in an increasingly dangerous world where the communist Chinese government is the No. 1 threat to our national security,” said Rep. Mark Alford, R-Mo. “We cannot afford the loss of any more soldiers.”

But military officials defended the mandate and said the Pentagon will continue to encourage service members and civilian employees to get the vaccine and subsequent boosters. They credited the vaccine for saving lives, noting 93 of the 96 service members who died from the coronavirus were unvaccinated.

The military’s death toll from the pandemic was broad: 36 family members of service members, 417 civilian employees and 141 Defense Department contractors, Cisneros said. Thousands more were hospitalized.

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., a former Air Force officer, challenged Republican claims that the military was worse off after the vaccine mandate. She said remaining service members were now in a better position because they had obeyed and followed orders.

“Good honor and discipline have been upheld and maintained,” she said. “I would argue that we are in a stronger position than we were before.”

The military has not actively reached out to the service members who were discharged due to the mandate and few have explored the option of returning to service, officials said. The Navy has seen interest from individuals in the “single digits," Raven said.

Those who would like to come back to military service can talk to recruiters and contact the appropriate service boards for the correction of military records, officials said.

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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