Some 40,000 National Guard and 22,000 Reserve soldiers who refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19 are no longer allowed to participate in their military duties, also effectively cutting them off from some of their military benefits, Army officials announced Friday.
“Soldiers who refuse the vaccination order without an approved or pending exemption request are subject to adverse administrative actions, including flags, bars to service, and official reprimands,” an Army spokesperson said in a statement.
The move comes in the midst of the annual training season, during which part-time soldiers are often ordered to serve from two weeks to a month with their units for summer training exercises. Those training events are usually critical for soldiers to sharpen their military skills and for unit commanders to ensure their formations are ready to deploy if needed.
If the soldiers continue to refuse the vaccine, the consequences could be even more dire.
“In the future, Soldiers who continue to refuse the vaccination order without an exemption may be subject to additional adverse administrative action, including separation,” the Army spokesperson said.
The long-term impact may mean many soldiers would be forced to leave, a devastating outcome especially in the middle of a recruiting crisis as Defense Department officials struggle to fill the ranks.
Soldiers will be allowed to come on duty and earn their pay in order to be vaccinated or to take part in separation procedures.
“We’re going to give every soldier every opportunity to get vaccinated and continue their military career,” Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen, director of the Army Guard, told Military.com in an emailed statement. “We’re not giving up on anybody until the separation paperwork is signed and completed.”
The Army National Guard and Reserve deadline to receive the vaccine was June 30, the latest of all the services, which required vaccination last year. As of July 1, 13% of the Army Guard and 12% of the Reserve is unvaccinated.
Part-time soldiers with a pending medical or religious exemption for the vaccine may continue to train with their units and collect pay and benefits. But exemption approvals are rare.
The vaccines have some rare side effects, including heart inflammation that has affected at least 22 service members, according to a study from the JAMA Network.
Only six Guard soldiers across all states and territories have permanent medical exemptions for the vaccine, out of 53 who requested one, according to Army data. No Reserve soldiers have a medical exemption.
No Guard or Reserve soldiers have been approved for a religious exemption after nearly 3,000 requests. It is unclear what would qualify a soldier for a waiver on religious grounds. Soldiers are required to be innoculated against at least a dozen other ailments, including the flu and hepatitis. And no major religious leaders have come out against vaccines.
Army officials have stopped short of outlining a clear plan on removing part-time soldiers, particularly Guardsmen, from service for continuing to refuse the vaccine. As of now, Guardsmen are barred only from attending federally funded drills and other training events, which make up the bulk of their service. While Guardsmen technically serve under their respective governors during their typical weekend duties, those weekends are federally funded.
Multiple Republican governors have vowed not to kick out Guardsmen who remain unvaccinated. It’s unclear how easy it will be for the Defense Department to enforce its decision to bar unvaccinated Guardsmen from pay and benefits. On paper, the only thing an unvaccinated Guard soldier is qualified for now is state active-duty orders, a comparatively rare tool for a governor to activate their Guard for short-term emergencies such as hurricane relief and responding to domestic disturbances.
SAD duties are usually short term. However, there are outliers such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has used SAD orders lasting up to a year to mobilize thousands of troops for missions on the U.S.-Mexico border.
But SAD duties do not qualify Guardsmen for federal benefits or retirement — effectively shutting them out of all of the military’s service incentives other than a paycheck.
Reserve soldiers fall exclusively under the federal government, possibly making it easier to separate them from service.
As of Friday, 1,148 active-duty soldiers have been removed from the Army for failing to comply with the vaccine mandate.
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