Enlisted leaders: Members forced out of service due to vaccine refusal have a path for return

Enlisted leaders testify before House Appropriations subcommittee

Enlisted leaders of the military branches told a House Appropriations subcommittee Tuesday that service members who were forced out of the military due to their refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine now have a process that can allow them to return.

The testimony came in a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston testified that the Army’s guidance allowing the return of people to the service was published “in the past 24 hours.” The process is the same for anyone who has had a “break in service” and who wants to rejoin the military, he said.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass echoed that, as did other top enlisted members testifying Tuesday. “There is a board process that we’re doing,” Bass said.

Committee member U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., noted the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin rescinded the military mandate to take the COVID-19 vaccine in January, at the direction of Congress in the most recent defense budget. More than 8,000 members of the military were discharged “solely for refusing the vaccine,” Rutherford said, while others were not able to deploy to assignments or saw other career impacts.

“I talk to many of these individuals back home. In Jacksonville, Northeast Florida, we have a very large military population,” Rutherford said. “One of the things I keep hearing is they want to come back.”

He added, “I understand if they want to come back, there’s going to be a process.”

The Air Force will reverse disciplinary or “adverse” actions taken against members who had requested an exemption from the mandate to get the COVID-19 vaccine for religious reasons, the service said Friday.

All military services have until March 17 to rescind their COVID-19 vaccination policies, according to a Pentagon memo released last week.

However, also Tuesday, Gilbert Cisneros Jr., undersecretary of defense for personnel, told the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee that some service members who disobeyed the lawful order to get the vaccine — and did not seek any type of exemption — were still going through the review process, according to an Associated Press account of that testimony.

“In order to maintain good order and discipline, it’s very important that our service members go and follow orders when they are lawful,” said Cisneros, adding that military services were going through each case to evaluate what should be done.

Cisneros and top officials from the Army, Navy and Air Force told the subcommittee that in some cases troops may have committed other misconduct in addition to the vaccine refusal, so each case was being reviewed, the AP reported.

“What’s the point?” said Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., the subcommittee chairman. “We rescinded the mandate — what’s the point of continuing to review the cases?”

The Air Force will remove “adverse information” from records of service members who sought an exemption on religious, administrative, or medical grounds and who had those actions taken against them “solely due to their refusal to take the vaccine,” the service said last week.

Service members do not need to initiate any actions for their records to be updated, the Air Force said Friday.

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