The Pentagon has announced mandatory vaccination for all active-duty servicemembers, reserves, and civilian employees of the Department of Defense. But thousands of soldiers are still unvaccinated. Find out what could happen if you refuse military required vaccines, and whether a religious exemption is an option.
U.S. Military Requires Vaccines for Soldiers and Reserves
On August 24, 2021, Secretary of Defense, Lloyd J. Austin, III, issued a memorandum mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for nearly every member of the armed forces. The deadlines for full vaccination are:
|Military Branch||Deadline for Full Vaccination|
|Air Force||November 2, 2021|
|Defense Department civilians||November 22, 20201|
|Navy and Marines||November 28, 2021|
|Air Guard and Reserve||December 2, 2021|
|Army||December 15, 2021|
|Navy and Marine Reservists||December 28, 2021|
|Army National Guard and Reserve||June 30, 2022|
Servicemembers are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or two weeks after the single dose of Johnson and Johnson. Even those who previously contracted COVID-19 must still be vaccinated.
Thousands of Servicemembers Miss Mandatory Vaccination Deadlines
As of November 2, 2021, the military branches were reporting between 1%-7% of troops remained unvaccinated. That amounted to nearly 60,000 active duty servicemembers. By December 7, those numbers had dropped to approximately 27,000 members of the Marines, Air Force, Space Force and the Navy, and about 19,000 of Army soldiers in the week leading up to that branch’s deadline.
Can You Get a Religious Exemption to Military Required COVID Vaccine?
Individual servicemembers who cannot be vaccinated do have the option of pursuing a medical or religious exemption. Some branches of the military have approved a small number of medical exemptions. However, those must be given by a doctor based on an existing medical condition, such as an allergy to something in the vaccine.
A larger number of servicemembers have applied for religious or administrative reasons (such as that they were already planning to leave the military prior to the mandate’s effective date). However, so far, none of the applications for religious exemptions have been granted. Getting a permanent religious exemption will likely be difficult. Servicemembers already receive more vaccines than the general public. Those objecting to the COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds will have to explain why they have a sincerely held religious belief that they shouldn’t get the COVID shot when they received all the other shots given to them by the military.
In addition, the leaders of most major religious organizations are now recommending the vaccine. This will make it more difficult for servicemembers to establish that they have a history of adherence to a religion that prohibits the COVID-19 vaccine.
Consequences for Refusing COVID Military Vaccine Requirement
The consequences of refusing a legal order to be vaccinated can be substantial. However, they will depend on which branch of the military you serve in. The Marine Corps has issued formal guidance directing that any marine refusing the COVID-19 vaccine without a pending or approved administrative, medical, or religious exemption will be processed for administrative separation. The Air Force has separated at least 40 recruits and trainees who refused the shot.
At the same time, the Army will not be removing unvaccinated soldiers immediately, but those soldiers will be “flagged.” This will prevent unvaccinated soldiers from reenlisting, receiving promotions, and other career advancement opportunities. They may see assignments canceled, career-ending letters placed in their personnel files, and non-deployment orders. More senior officers could be relieved of duty.
For those servicemembers facing the choice between unwanted vaccination and the end of their military career, the option may be to request an administrative separation board. Servicemembers with at least 6 years of service may request a hearing where they, with the help of a military attorney, can present evidence of their good character and positive service record. The board can then recommend their continued service or that they receive an honorable discharge. This will protect servicemembers’ veterans benefits and pensions. But servicemembers should also be aware of the plenary authority of the Service Secretaries, which gives them the ability to separate a service member even after a board recommends their retention. This almost never happens, but given the controversial nature of the COVID-19 vaccine, this might be the scenario where this authority is used.
At Aviso Law, LLC, our military attorneys are veterans themselves. We know how to navigate the process of requesting and receiving exemptions, and we can help servicemembers facing administrative separation. We are here to serve you and will see you through the process to protect your rights and your military benefits. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.