As civilian courts block vaccine mandates, Pentagon forges ahead with harsh compliance enforcement

The military vaccine mandate continues, while in the civilian world, judges have ruled against a number of mandates.

Published: December 9, 2021 8:04pm

Updated: December 10, 2021 10:51pm

As civilian judges continue to strike down Biden administration-imposed COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the Pentagon increasingly faces challenges to enforcing its own unpopular mandate among all the services.

Despite harsh measures to enforce its vaccine mandate, the Pentagon has not seen full compliance among the troops. Some 27,000 servicemembers among four branches — the Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, and Space Force — are considered unvaccinated, according to reports. Within the Army, approximately 19,000 soldiers have not received a first dose of a two-shot process. 

Within the civilian world, judges have ruled against a number of vaccine mandates. A U.S. district court judge this week blocked the Biden administration from enforcing a vaccine mandate on employees of government contractors. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction to stop a mandate for health care workers. 

While these and other civilian mandates are stymied by the courts, the Pentagon has pressed on, using heavy-handed measures to enforce compliance. 

The Defense Department has threatened to kick people out of the military and possibly prevent them from receiving important benefits such as health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

On military bases, troops report that certain privileges, such as holiday parties, are being withheld from unvaccinated troops — and their families.

At Fort Benning in Georgia, post officials set up rules that required even young children to show their documents before being allowed to attend a tree lighting ceremony.

"All attendees 16 years or older must be fully vaccinated," officials wrote on social media. "Attendees 15 years or younger must show negative COVID test."

While many of the unvaccinated troops have asked for exemptions from the mandates, one National Guard organization has directly challenged the Pentagon's order. 

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt last month asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to suspend the vaccine mandate for members of the Oklahoma National Guard. 

"It is irresponsible for the federal government to place mandatory vaccine obligations on Oklahoma national guardsmen which could potentially limit the number of individuals that I can call upon to assist the state during an emergency," Stitt wrote in a Nov. 1 letter to Austin.

Austin refused the request and doubled down, ordering that all National Guard and Reserve members must be vaccinated, or will be barred from training and from being paid. 

"No credit or excused absence shall be afforded to members who do not participate in drills, training, or other duty due to failure to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19," Austin wrote in a memo to military service secretaries and other leaders. 

The Air Force joined forces with Austin, and announced that any Air National Guard members who refuse the vaccine will be blocked from taking part in federally funded drills or training, and will be reassigned to the Individual Ready Reserve, where they will not be paid.

While mandate-related cases continue to wend through civilian courts, officials anticipate more challenges to the Pentagon mandate. The governor and the state attorney general of Oklahoma last week filed a federal lawsuit, charging that Austin overstepped his authority over the National Guard. 

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have argued that the vaccine mandate hinders national security, because it could force thousands of highly trained service members to leave the military. 

While showdowns with the Pentagon seemingly loom, lawmakers have introduced legislation to prevent the services from giving dishonorable discharges to members who refuse the vaccine.

A pending measure would require the services to give vaccine-refusers either an "honorable discharge" or a "general discharge under honorable conditions." 

In August, Austin directed the military services to vaccinate all members, including those in the National Guard and Reserve. Each service set its own compliance deadline, which has passed for all active duty military branches except the Army, which set a Dec. 15 deadline. 

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