The Defense Department will no longer require service members to get vaccinated for COVID-19, according to a memo signed Tuesday by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The move comes weeks after President Joe Biden signed the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, and with it a plan to rescind Austin’s August 2021 memo directing the services to create a vaccination policy.
“The Department will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all Service members,” Austin wrote. “The Department has made COVID-19 vaccination as easy and convenient as possible, resulting in vaccines administered to over two million Service members and 96 percent of the force ― Active and Reserve ― being fully vaccinated.”
From early 2020 to early 2022, after the service’s mandates went into effect, 96 active and reserve service members died of COVID-19 complications. Of those, 93 were unvaccinated.
But tens of thousands of requests for religious exemptions plagued the services, resulting in multiple lawsuits that as of the end of 2022 left the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force under injunctions preventing the involuntary separation of any service members who had been denied a waiver.
Congressional Republicans pushed back against the mandate, as thousands of troops were discharged for refusing vaccination, arguing that the separations were harming readiness and possibly hurting recruiting.
Some lawmakers requested the Pentagon reinstate, with backpay, any troops involuntarily discharged over their vaccination refusal. That provision did not end up in the final version of the defense policy bill. Instead, the law’s language specifically required Austin to rescind his memo creating a mandate.
Austin’s memo directs the services to remove any flags on the personnel records of troops who are not yet vaccinated and to rescind any letters of reprimand.
Still, any troops who are unvaccinated may be barred from certain assignments or deployments, Austin wrote, “including when vaccination is required to travel to, or entry into, a foreign nation.”
Service members who received general discharges for failing to obey orders to get vaccinated may petition their service’s discharge review board or board for correction of records to upgrade their discharge characterizations, he added.
Additional guidance will come from the Pentagon’s personnel chief, he wrote.
“The Department’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts will leave a lasting legacy in the many lives we saved, the world-class Force we have been able to field, and the high level of readiness we have maintained, amidst difficult public health conditions,” Austin wrote.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.