The United States Military Academy is reimposing restrictions on unvaccinated cadets despite the lifting of the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, reports military attorney R. Davis Younts, a reversal that comes even as Congress mulls legislation seeking redress for service members dismissed for vaccine refusal.
The Department of Defense rescinded the military vaccine mandate pursuant to the Dec. 23 enactment of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which included a measure repealing the mandate.
During the height of the pandemic, West Point implemented a policy prohibiting cadets from traveling for sports or other events, according to Younts. After the vaccine was made available, only unvaccinated cadets were restricted from traveling. Then, last semester, while the military vaccine mandate was still in place, West Point dropped the policy, allowing unvaccinated cadets to travel for sports, the Army-Navy game, and other events.
After the Pentagon lifted the vaccine mandate, however, West Point reinstated the travel ban for unvaccinated cadets. Putting the "restrictions back in place" after the mandate was rescinded "feels like coercion" to force vaccination on the cadets, Younts said. He questions the "justification for the policy change," while acknowledging that West Point has the authority to reinstate the restrictions
"Is there suddenly a crazy spike in COVID deaths in West Point, New York," or is it because there isn't "anything left to coerce [the cadets] into compliance?" asked Younts.
While the vaccine mandate was still in effect, the unvaccinated cadets submitted Religious Accommodation Requests (RAR) for exemptions. After the requests were denied, they appealed the denials, which were also denied. After the denials of their RAR appeals, they requested medical exemptions, which were in turn denied, appealed and denied again.
The U.S. Military Academy Office of Public Affairs and Communications told Just the News on Monday, "The U.S. Military Academy at West Point continues to follow Department of Defense's guidance regarding unvaccinated service members. U.S. Army policy states unvaccinated service members are not eligible for official travel without prior approval from the Under Secretary of the Army. Until the policy is rescinded, West Point will continue to follow it."
Building on the NDAA's repeal of the military vaccine mandate, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), along with 18 other Republican senators and Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) in the House, introduced legislation on Monday that would require the Defense Department to offer reinstatement to military members discharged over the vaccine mandate.
The legislation would also prevent the department from issuing another COVID vaccine mandate without congressional approval and require that service members reinstated after involuntary separation for refusing the vaccine be credited with retirement pay.
Additionally, the legislation requires that DOD: "restore the rank of any service member demoted solely for COVID-19 vaccine status, compensating the service member for any pay and benefits lost due to that demotion; adjust to 'honorable' any 'general' discharge given to a service member solely due to COVID-19 vaccine status; expunge from a service [member's] record any adverse action based solely on COVID-19 vaccine status, regardless of whether the service member previously sought an accommodation; make every effort to retain service members not vaccinated against COVID-19, providing them with professional development, promotion, and leadership opportunities equal to that of their peers; and provide a COVID-19 vaccine exemption process for service members with natural immunity, a relevant underlying health condition, or a sincerely held religious belief inconsistent with being vaccinated."
Despite the lifting of the vaccine mandate, unvaccinated military members are still facing repercussions, including denial of benefits, ineligibility for promotion and/or deployment, and potentially diminished employment prospects for those already discharged.
The new legislation was proposed a day before National Guard Bureau Chief General Dan Hokanson said he didn't have a timeline for reintegrating unvaccinated Guardsmen into their units.
"Yeah, it'll be really dependent on the policy decisions that are made," Hokanson said during a Pentagon news conference on Tuesday. "And as I mentioned, we're in the working group, we're trying to get ... those policies established as soon as possible, but unfortunately, we just don't have a date right at this time."
A total of 38% of National Guardsmen aren't vaccinated and were not permitted to drill under the vaccine mandate.
While the DOD claims around 8,000-9,000 service members were separated from the military over the vaccine mandate, Younts said that estimate doesn't include the thousands who "voluntarily" separated, retired, or were unable to reenlist.