Senate Republicans on Thursday blasted President Biden’s plan to allow for other-than-honorable discharges for active-duty military personnel who refuse to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
The White House has remained firm on its vaccine requirement for service members and has pushed back on lawmakers’ efforts to bar other-than-honorable discharges.
“Next Thursday … is Veterans Day, a day that we stop, that this nation pauses, to honor our veterans,” said Sen. Roger Marshall, Kansas Republican. “Our president instead is choosing to dishonor our military active-duty officers by forcing them to be separated from the military and then pushing upon them a dishonorable discharge.”
The remarks come after more than 8,000 active-duty members of the Air Force and Space Force missed the services’ vaccine deadline on Tuesday.
Service members could face “administrative or non-judicial punishment [under UCMJ] — to include relief of duties or discharge” for refusing the vaccine per Pentagon guidance issued in August.
The bill is called “COVID-19 Vaccine Dishonorable Discharge Prevention Act.”
The Department of Defense has not indicated that service members will receive dishonorable discharges, the most severe discharge category equivalent to a felony, for refusing the vaccine. Dishonorable discharges require that the service member receive a guilty verdict from a general court-martial. The president does not have the authority to issue a dishonorable discharge.
Services have left open the possibility that troops could receive other-than-honorable discharges, which are less severe than a dishonorable discharge but could block them from receiving certain veterans’ benefits.
In September, Mr. Marshall introduced legislation aimed at barring the Pentagon from giving service members anything but an honorable discharge for refusing the vaccine. Ten Republicans have joined Mr. Marshall in sponsoring the bill.
President Biden has stood by the guidance under which troops could face severe penalties.
“To enable a uniformed force to fight with discipline, commanders must have the ability to give orders and take appropriate disciplinary measures,” the White House said in a statement.
“President Biden wants to turn heroes into felons,” Mr. Marshall said Thursday in a press conference. “That’s what his policy is doing. … Think about the consequences of a dishonorable discharge. … You would lose your access to the G.I. bill for more education, you would lose access to VA home loans, your VA medical benefits, military funeral honors. … This is a big issue. It’s going to make our nation less secure.”
Republican Sens. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Rick Scott of Florida and Roger F. Wicker of Mississippi joined Mr. Marshall at Thursday’s press conference.
The lawmakers were also joined by First Liberty Institute general counsel Mike Berry, who is representing close to 40 Navy SEALs who are seeking religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate.
“This is a time in our nation’s history when we face very real threats, Mr. Berry said. “Threats from China, North Korea, Iran, Russia, and we should expect that every one of our able-bodied Navy SEALs and other service members, we want them defending this nation, fighting for our freedom. And instead, they’re fighting for their livelihoods and their careers. That’s un-American, and that’s wrong.”
The majority of those who missed this week’s Air Force deadline — nearly 5,000 troops — had applied for religious exemptions that have not been yet been approved by the service. The service has approved more than 1,600 exemptions on medical or administrative grounds.
The Air Force has separated 40 junior recruits and trainees under less-severe, entry-level discharges but will likely take weeks in determining the way forward for more senior personnel who have refused to get vaccinated.
The Pentagon earlier this week called on unit commanders to practice “compassion and understanding” when addressing service members who decline the vaccine.
Active-duty members of the Coast Guard, Navy and Marines face deadlines later this month, followed by Army soldiers in December.
Correction: An earlier version of this article did not differentiate between a dishonorable discharge and an other-than-honorable discharge from the military. Refusal to comply with the military COVID-19 vaccine mandate could result in an other-than-honorable discharge.