Pentagon Not Pursuing Separate Reentry Path For Vaccine Separated Service Members

February 28, 2023 6:23 PM
Lance Cpl. Carlos Benitez, assigned to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, receives a COVID-19 booster shot aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) on March 23, 2022. US Navy Photo

The Department of Defense will not issue a separate policy to bring back service members who were separated for failing to get vaccinated against COVID-19, a top Pentagon personnel chief testified to Congress on Tuesday.

Service personnel who were separated for failing to get vaccinated against the disease can attempt to rejoin the service through the same procedures for anyone separated from a military branch, said Gilbert Cisneros, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, during a hearing before the House Armed Services Military Personnel subcommittee.

Those separated can apply to the board of corrections for any discrepancies in their discharges or they can go to a recruiter to see if they are eligible to reenlist, Cisneros said.

The Department of the Navy, which also oversees the Marine Corps, follows that procedure, Under Secretary of the Navy Erik Raven testified. There are former sailors who have explored those options, but the number is in the single digits.

The Air Force is slightly different. Those wishing to reenlist will need to go before a discharge review board to have their discharge characterizations upgraded. If successful, they could then go talk to a recruiter, Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones said.

Whether or not service members separated over refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19 would be reinstated has been one of the remaining questions since Congress passed a provision of the Fiscal Year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act requiring the Secretary of Defense to rescind the COVID-19 vaccination mandate from August 2021.

The individual services then rescinded their own mandates, with the Navy issuing further guidance that vaccine status could not be the only consideration in whether someone is operational or deployable.

Members of the House and the Senate have already submitted legislation that would require the services to reinstate service members. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, submitted a bill on Feb. 17 that would reinstate federal employees who were separated due vaccine refusal. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) have introduced companion bills that would prevent future COVID-19 vaccine mandates and reinstate anyone separated due to refusing the vaccine under the prior mandate.

Although the Army and Navy departments have issued guidance that rescinds the COVID-19 vaccination mandate, there are some cases still under review due to service members not following a lawful order, Raven and Undersecretary of the Army Gabe Camarillo said.

The cases are under review on an individual basis.

“I would just add that each of these cases has to be evaluated on its own individual merits because they’re highly fact-specific,” Camarillo said. “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.”

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio is a reporter with USNI News. She has a master’s degree in science journalism and has covered local courts, crime, health, military affairs and the Naval Academy.
Follow @hmongilio

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