- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The military’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate is off the books, but the fallout from the controversial order is far from over.

Top-ranking Pentagon officials and leaders from each military service told lawmakers Tuesday that the Defense Department is still reviewing for potential “disciplinary procedures” numerous cases of active-duty troops who refused the shot while the mandate was in force. Those service members, officials said, could still face penalties for refusing lawful orders given by their commanders. 

A tense back-and-forth between defense officials and Republicans on the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel Tuesday underscored the controversy still swirling around the vaccine mandate, initially implemented in 2021 and rescinded late last year as part of the annual defense budget bill passed by Congress.

Indiana’s Rep. Jim Banks, who now chairs the subcommittee following the GOP House gains in the midterm elections, took aim at the ongoing review process for a mandate that’s no longer in place.

“What’s the point? If we rescinded the mandate, what’s the point of continuing to review the cases?” asked Mr. Banks.

Mr. Banks went on to blast the “double standard and message that you’re sending to our troops — rescinding the policy and still punishing them for not taking the vaccine.”

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Other Republicans on the panel accused the Pentagon of willfully ignoring the damage caused by the controversial mandate, which was strongly backed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

“Readiness is an issue,” Rep. Mark Alford, Missouri Republican, said. “This vaccine mandate … I don’t think it did much for the morale of the military, the morale of America.”

“We cannot afford the loss of any more soldiers,” he added.

More than 8,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were kicked out of the military for refusing the vaccine. Many submitted requests for religious or medical waivers that were denied. Officials with each service said there are now several paths for those troops to get back into the ranks, and the services also are implementing steps in some cases to clear their records provided they followed all correct protocols throughout the process.

But some service members may still face some disciplinary action in connection with their vaccination decisions. It’s unclear what that disciplinary action may be, or exactly what scenarios could call for formal punishment. Officials stressed that the cases are “fact-specific” and must be evaluated individually.

“They’re reviewing the cases because … they [disobeyed] a lawful order,” Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros told the panel. “In order to maintain good order and discipline, it’s very important that our service members go and follow orders when they are lawful. And there were thousands that did not. And so the services are going through a process to review those cases to determine what needs to be done.”

Under Secretary of the Army Gabe Camarillo said that a review process is ongoing within his service.

“There are a number of cases that we still have yet to review for individual soldiers who … chose not to comply with a lawful order,” he said. “I would just add that each of these cases have to be evaluated on their individual merits because they’re highly fact-specific.”

“There may be, in any instance, numerous violations of the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] or other areas in which there might be circumstances in which to look at disciplinary procedures,” he said. 

The Pentagon is arguing that, even though the mandate has since been revoked, it was still a lawful order at the time it was given.

Some subcommittee Democrats said the order, despite having been rolled back, did indeed help maintain order within the military.

“Good order and discipline has been maintained, so I would argue we are in a stronger position now than we were before,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, Pennsylvania Democrat.

Mr. Cisneros agreed, saying that the military is “as strong as ever,” despite thousands having been booted from the ranks over a now-defunct vaccine mandate and with the services struggling to meet their annual recruiting goals.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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