Army Col. Joshua Bookout receives the coronavirus vaccine at the Conroy Bowl on Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, in January 2021.

Army Col. Joshua Bookout receives the coronavirus vaccine at the Conroy Bowl on Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, in January 2021. (Angelo Mejia/U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON — The Army and Air Force did not meet the Defense Department time guidelines in processing some requests from service members wanting to be exempt from taking coronavirus vaccines for religious reasons, the department inspector general revealed Thursday in a new report.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in August 2021 issued a memorandum to the secretaries of the military services to begin vaccination of all armed forces members against the coronavirus. Troops at the time with a health condition incompatible with the vaccine could get a waiver. Additionally, troops with religious beliefs that prohibit the use of vaccines could seek exemption under the Defense Department’s Religious Liberty in the Military Services instruction.

The department’s inspector general announced in February 2022 that the office would begin an audit of how the military services conducted exemption requests for the vaccine mandate, as well as disciplinary actions.

Though the Pentagon rescinded the coronavirus vaccine mandate last year — a policy rollback in the defense authorization bill — the IG’s review recommendations apply to all vaccination exemptions and discharges required of service members.

More than 8,000 service members were separated from the armed forces for refusing the coronavirus vaccine, The Washington Post reported. Only 43 rejoined the U.S. military following the repeal, according to CNN.

The IG’s report found in 12 instances the Army did not review requests within its 90-day requirement window. In those cases, the Army review averaged 192 days, more than twice the length of time allotted.

There were 35 cases the Air Force did not review in its 30-day requirement period, according to the report. In those cases, the service review averaged 168 days, more than five times as long.

The inspector general report also found the services did not always record medical and administrative exemptions as required. Additionally, the review found all the military branches discharged service members for coronavirus vaccination refusal under federal and department guidance, but service members did not receive the same discharge status or reentry code for potential reenlistment.

The services issued either honorable or general discharges for members who refused the vaccine. Discharged service members received different reentry codes because the Pentagon did not have department-level guidance requiring uniformity on the matter.

“Prolonged delays in addressing requests for religious accommodations could impact a service member’s job placement and impede the command’s ability to make well-informed deployment and assignment choices,” Inspector General Robert Storch wrote in the report. “DoD’s lack of department-level guidance for uniformly characterizing discharges and assigning reentry codes for vaccination refusal resulted in service members experiencing different impacts to their educational benefits and eligibility to reenlist after discharge.”

The inspector general’s office recommended the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness develop and issue guidance to require uniform discharge types, as well as assign uniform reentry codes for service members discharged for misconduct solely for refusing a vaccine.

The office also recommended the director of the Defense Health Agency, in their capacity as manager for the department’s immunization program, develop and implement a requirement for personnel to maintain supporting documentation for medical exemptions in the service members’ medical records and administrative exemptions in service members’ personnel records.

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Matthew Adams covers the Defense Department at the Pentagon. His past reporting experience includes covering politics for The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and The News and Observer. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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