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Coast Guard to discharge COVID vaccine mandate objectors without separation hearings

"It is impossible to justify this continued mandate and this action based on the current studies and science," said military defense lawyer R. Davis Younts.

Published: July 27, 2022 8:49pm

Updated: July 30, 2022 11:25pm

While federal courts have ordered the Navy and Air Force not to take any adverse actions against military members seeking religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, the Coast Guard is seeking to discharge service members refusing the vaccine without allowing them to appear before administrative separation boards to defend their cases. 

Federal courts in Texas and Ohio have granted injunctions against the Navy and Air Force vaccine mandates, respectively, for members seeking religious exemptions. Those injunctions, however, do not apply to any other military branches, including the Coast Guard. 

While in the other branches an administrative separation board is a right to which members are entitled based on service time, the Coast Guard is seeking to deny that due process protection to otherwise qualified COVID vaccine mandate objectors. 

An active-duty Coast Guard rescue swimmer nearing retirement told Just the News that despite an unblemished service record with many awards, he is facing involuntary separation next month after his request for a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate was denied.

Much like the Navy SEALs and other special forces, Coast Guard rescue swimmers are an elite cadre, selected through a highly competitive process and trained under grueling, demanding conditions. Going through rescue swimmer school can take about 10-13 months, and afterwards, members take another eight-week course to become an EMT. Supplemental training is required intermittently throughout their careers, like, for example, helicopter rescue school approximately every four years. 

The rescue swimmer's religious accommodation request (RAR) and subsequent appeal were rejected with blanket denials, he told Just the News. He would normally be entitled to a board hearing to defend his case, given that he has served for at least eight years, but the Coast Guard seeks to circumvent the board by claiming convenience of the government as the reason for his discharge. 

While discharging members who refuse to get the vaccine, the Coast Guard is simultaneously offering $500 to any member who recruits someone who makes it through boot camp, as the service is struggling with reduced numbers, the rescue swimmer said. Indeed, the rescue swimmers themselves are 80 short of their required minimum as a result of the difficult training and structural issues with the training facility that have slowed the process down, he added. 

Despite its manpower squeeze, the Coast Guard is discharging members not compliant with the "unlawful" COVID vaccine mandate, the rescue swimmer told Just the News. The swimmer and his attorney R. Davis Younts argue that the COVID vaccines are experimental and cannot be lawfully ordered since the military has not made fully FDA-approved versions of the vaccines available to its members.

Younts told Just the News the Coast Guard accords his client the right to file a letter to challenge his discharge and ask to be retained, but that it means very little in practice, as the letter goes to the same authority that denied his RAR.

While the swimmer's command could recommend retention based on the needs of the Coast Guard, Younts views that as unlikely given that it hasn't happened in the other services. "Nobody has cared," he said. 

The rescue swimmer told Just the News that the Coast Guard discharge would rob him of his pension, in addition to his current pay. Younts added that his client would lose medical care for his family. 

"I'm just lost and sick over it," the swimmer said. The whole ordeal has been "very mentally draining," he admitted, adding that while "this job requires mental toughness, which I have a vast quantity of," the vaccine mandate has "really tested my mental fortitude in so many ways."

The rescue swimmer said that he loves serving in the Coast Guard and loves his shipmates, vaccinated or not, and will continued to proudly serve alongside them until his last day, which could come within the next two months. Those in the service who have received the vaccine "feel for" those refusing the shot, "but everyone is handcuffed — there's nothing that they can do," he added.

"They're just following orders," he said. "It just pains me that more leaders can't just stand up and speak on our behalf because they're afraid themselves."

Although litigation against the Coast Guard is pending, it's uncertain how long it will take, said Younts. With no separation board hearings for the Coast Guard objectors, "These guys could be gone before getting to court," he said, since "federal courts don't move quickly, even in emergency situations like this."

On Thursday, Liberty Counsel announced that it has filed an amended complaint in federal court seeking class action relief from the vaccine mandate for Coast Guard members who have been denied religious exemptions.

On Monday, the Coast Guard issued guidance on its mandate to "Commanders, Commanding Officers, and Officers-in-Charge in the field," according to Younts, who provided the document, entitled "Command Toolkit — Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccinations Version 2.0," to Just the News. Noting the guidance had been made public via numerous websites and online chats, he said, "I have verified its authenticity through multiple whistleblowers."  

Under the new guidance: 

  • Coast Guard members must be vaccinated to be deployable. 

  • Coast Guard members who do not comply with the vaccine mandate "will be processed for separation."

  • Non-compliant officers are not eligible for promotion. 

  • Advancements for enlisted service members are withheld until they're complaint with the vaccine mandate (and they have to compete again for an advancement if not compliant by the advancement deadline). 

  • Service members within 180 days of separation or retirement can't receive an exemption from the vaccine mandate. 

  • Coast Guard members who are in Duty Under Instruction Status (DUINS) will have to pay back the service, if they "are administratively separated" for refusing the vaccine. 

Younts explained that the last point means any Coast Guard member who received education or training paid for by the service or "received a bonus to extend their contract" for enlistment would have to repay the military branch. 

"For example, a Coast Guard Academy cadet or someone who had an ROTC scholarship would have to pay back the cost of their education," he said. 

"The latest science and research shows that the vaccinations have waning efficacy while natural immunity may not," Younts said. "It is impossible to justify this continued mandate and this action based on the current studies and science. There is simply no military readiness justification for continuing with a mandate."

While the first page of the "toolkit" says it's a guide, not binding policy, its intent is obvious, said Younts, explaining that the disclaimer is included "to avoid the appearance of telling commanders what to do." 

Omitting comment on the new guidance, the Coast Guard told Just the News in a statement:

"The Coast Guard remains committed to protecting our service members, civilian employees, and families; safeguarding our national security capabilities; and supporting the whole-of nation response to the pandemic.

"Vaccination remains central to our efforts to defend against COVID-19 and maintain a mission-ready Coast Guard. All Coast Guard military members who do not fall within an approved exception must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or they will be involuntarily separated from the service."

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