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Defense officials: Troops who refused COVID vaccine could face penalties despite mandate elimination

Republicans have long argued that the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which was eventually repealed in December, had hurt the nation's military readiness

Published: February 28, 2023 1:13pm

Updated: March 1, 2023 11:06am

Members of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on military personnel Tuesday grilled top Defense Department officials on the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the armed forces.

Republicans have long argued the COVID vaccine mandate has hurt the nation's military readiness. 

"The National Guard is already missing recruitment goals, and they’re set to lose 9,000 members in fiscal year 2023 and 5,000 in fiscal year 2024," Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, said in late 2022. "In the United States, the number of new service members joining the military has reached a record low."

The mandate was eventually repealed in December as part of the $847 billion defense authorization bill.

The witnesses at the hearing Tuesday included Under Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr.; Gabe Camarillo, the under secretary of the U.S. Army; Erik Raven, the under secretary of the Navy; and Gina Ortiz Jones, the under secretary of the Air Force. 

Camarillo and Raven said service members who refused to comply with the mandate and did not apply for an exception are still being evaluated on a case-by-case basis. 

Cisneros said service members who refused to comply with the vaccine mandate were disobeying a "lawful order" prior to the elimination of the mandate.

"You're going to hear from a lot of my colleagues who are infuriated about the double standard and message you are sending to our troops, rescinding a policy and still punishing them for not taking the vaccine," Indiana GOP Rep. Jim Banks said in response. 

Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz asked the witnesses whether there is a plan to reach out to the roughly 8,600 service members who were discharged for not complying with the vaccine mandate. 

Cisneros said any service member who was discharged in response to the vaccine mandate can reapply for admission into the armed forces. He wouldn't say whether the Defense Department is proactively reaching out to those who were discharged prior to the elimination of the vaccine mandate. 

Missouri GOP Rep. Mark Alford argued that the mandate didn't do much for the military's recruitment goals, noting they were missed by 25% last year, amounting to 15,000 less soldiers. 

"We cannot afford the loss of any more soldiers," he said.

Alford pressed Cisneros to defend his position that the military is stronger today after the implementation of the vaccine mandate.

In response, Cisneros said vaccinating most service members has "allowed us to continue training" and "carry out the national defense strategy." He also said that vaccinating U.S. troops has "played a big part in ensuring the readiness of our force."

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