Pentagon Scrambles to Prep New COVID Rules as Vaccine Mandate Nears End
Vaccine-refusal separations are on hold as DOD develops “further guidance.”
Pentagon leaders, who must scrap their COVID-vaccine mandate within three weeks, are trying to figure out what happens after that.
The 2023 National Defense Authorization Act—signed into law by President Joe Biden Dec. 23—requires Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to rescind his 2021 memo to vaccinate all military personnel within 30 days of the bill’s signing.
The DOD will do as directed, but officials are “currently in the process of developing further guidance,” Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in a statement Tuesday. In the meantime, she said, the Pentagon “is pausing all actions for all service members related to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.”
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Terence Kelley confirmed the service “is suspending the processing and initiation of involuntary separations based solely on a soldier’s refusal to comply with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate” while they wait for guidance from OSD.
Among the questions that need answers are: Are there new measures needed to protect troops or unit readiness? Will unvaccinated troops be treated differently? How will the rescinding of the mandate affect troops in the process of being separated for refusing the vaccine?
This guidance process means the military services are on standby to see what the Pentagon decides to do. Marine Corps Spokesman Capt. Ryan Bruce said the service is “in close coordination with the Department of the Navy and OSD as we work to implement policies outlined in the 2023 NDAA.”
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., who is expected to be the next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wants the Pentagon to provide its plan for repealing the mandate as soon as possible. Rogers sent a letter to Austin on Dec. 23, asking for the Pentagon’s plan by Dec. 31—eight days after the law was signed.
“The department was well aware of this coming change and, hopefully, has plans to clearly communicate the end of the mandate for all members of the Armed Forces,” wrote Rogers, who voted to overturn election results in 2021.
More than 8,400 service members have been kicked out for refusing the vaccine. In November, several Senate Republicans who pushed for the mandate’s repeal questioned keeping it in light of the military’s recruiting crisis.
Before the 2023 NDAA passed, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said he was concerned that a repeal of the vaccine mandate could cause problems for the service, including potential movement restrictions during foreign port visits.
“Unquestionably, it will create almost two classes of citizens in our services: those that can’t deploy and those that can deploy. And that creates all sorts of problems,” Del Toro said Dec. 6. “Let's make sure we understand the secondary consequences of our actions.”
Nearly all active-duty troops are fully vaccinated, according to data from the service branches. The Navy, Air Force, and Space Force are at 99 percent, while the Army is at 97 percent and the Marine Corps is at 96 percent.
Jennifer Hlad contributed to this story.