On Jan. 10, 2023, the military COVID-19 vaccination requirement was rescinded by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III for servicemembers, according to CNN. Prior to that decision, servicemembers were subject to COVID-19 vaccine mandates to maintain military readiness, according to the Department of Defense. Servicemembers from various branches had to get the vaccine – a military COVID-19 vaccination requirement – unless they sought and received an approved exemption.
The vast majority of servicemembers followed the military COVID-19 vaccination requirement. For example, the Department of Defense said that in December 2021, 468,459 active-duty Army servicemembers were vaccinated, which is 98% of the Army. Military Times reported that 97% of the Marine Corps acquiesced to the military COVID-19 vaccination requirement, and 99% of the active force of the Navy is vaccinated.
Medical and Administrative Exemptions to the Military COVID-19 Vaccine Requirement
For military members who did not wish to follow the military COVID-19 vaccination requirement, their only recourse was to request either a medical or administrative exemption. According to the Congressional Research Service, a medical exemption was authorized if a servicemember had an underlying health condition that would be adversely impacted by the COVID-19 vaccine. An administrative exemption included religious exemptions and exemptions for servicemembers pending separation or retirement.
Discharges for Servicemembers Refusing to Follow the Military COVID-19 Vaccination Requirement
However, there were many instances where servicemembers refused to undertake the military COVID-19 vaccination requirement and did not receive an authorized exemption, resulting in their removal from service. For those who refused the vaccine and did not receive an exemption, there were consequences. For instance, Military Times notes that of the 3,400 servicemembers who were involuntarily removed from service for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine order, around 70% received a general discharge.
There is a significant difference between an honorable discharge and a general discharge in the military. According to The Military Wallet, a servicemember receives an honorable discharge if he or she received a good or excellent rating while in the service by exceeding performance and personal conduct standards. A servicemember can receive a general discharge is received if the servicemember’s performance was satisfactory, but all of the expectations for conduct were not met.
Will Recruitment Be Affected by Austin’s Decision to Change Military the COVID-19 Vaccination Requirement?
Despite Austin’s decision, servicemembers are still encouraged to receive the COVID-19 shots. It will be interesting to see, however, if the reversal of the COVID-19 vaccination requirement impacts military recruitment.
A wide range of factors likely contributed to the military’s recruitment struggles in 2022, according to Bloomberg Government. Those factors included:
- A strong civilian job market that offers competitive benefits
- Mental and physical health issues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic
- Recruits not meeting the physical standards for service
Bloomberg Government also notes that 77% of Americans between 16 to 24 years old are not qualified for military services without receiving an approved waiver. In many cases, obesity is a major factor in being considered unfit for military service.
Improving Military Recruitment Should Be Prioritized
Improving military recruitment should be a top priority. The risk of conflict inside or outside the U.S. always exists and having a well-staffed and well-trained military is essential.
The reversal of the military COVID-19 vaccination requirement may not have a substantial impact on military recruitment. However, it may encourage new recruits who previously held off on joining the military due to the vaccine mandate to enlist.