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House Committee Takes Initial Stab At Protecting, Reenlisting Troops Booted Over COVID-19 Vaccine

  • The House Armed Services Committee voted in favor of several amendments aimed at minimizing penalties for and reinstating troops who refused the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Congress repealed the mandate last year, but failed to reinstate servicemembers who faced forced separation.
  • “This provides a fair, equitable, and honorable option for our wrongly separated service members,” Republican Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana said during floor debate.

The House Armed Services Committee approved a raft of provisions aimed at overturning penalties for servicemembers who refused the COVID-19 vaccine and bringing those who were discharged back into active duty on Wednesday.

While the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (DNAA) repealed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for troops, it opened up a host of complications for members awaiting exemptions or discharges who had negative marks entered into their personnel records and did nothing to reinstate those already discharged. The House Armed Services Committee, debating its markup of the NDAA for fiscal year 2024, took an initial stab at addressing those problems following a year of confusion and GOP dissatisfaction with the Pentagon over how it handled the vaccine repeal.

One amendment, introduced by Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, who chairs the Military Personnel subcommittee, prevents the Department of Defense (DOD) from adding adverse actions to a servicemember’s personnel record solely on the basis of refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. Top officials from each of the services previously told Congress no servicemember would be punished just for refusing the vaccine, but “aggravating factors” could lead to adverse marks permanently entered in their files.

The bill also asks the secretary to reinstate willing members with no changes to their rank or paygrade, rather than requiring them to reenlist and work their way back up to the position they held at time of separation.

“This provides a fair, equitable, and honorable option for our wrongly separated service members — many who filed legitimate religious exemptions and were ignored — to return to the ranks without any detriments to their career progression,” Banks said.

Providing incentives to reentry for servicemembers who otherwise would have remained could help alleviate a worsening recruiting crunch, Banks argued.

The Pentagon booted 8,400 troops from service for refusing the vaccine.

Most servicemembers — roughly 70% — who found themselves involuntarily separated from the military solely for refusing the vaccine received a “general” discharge rather than “honorable,” Military Times reported. Soldiers, sailors and airmen who have already been discharged have the opportunity petition their service branch to change the characterization of their discharge to honorable, according to guidance issued by each service.

Another Banks resolution calls on the DOD appeals board to prioritize reviewing and correcting the records for discharged servicemembers above other corrections requests. That could allow the members to secure certain veterans’ benefits, such as the GI bill, only available to those receiving honorable discharges, according to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

“Prioritizing those who want to rejoin will help alleviate some of the recruiting crisis we are now in — not, incidentally, caused by dismissing thousands of our troops for failure to get vaccinated,” Banks said.

A third amendment requires DOD to individually contact each servicemember who was discharged and explain the process of re-joining the military no later than six months after the bill is passed into law — which will not be for months.

Republican Rep. Jackson of Texas spearheaded a provision blocking the military service academies from charging a cadet or midshipman full tuition if they graduated but were prevented from commissioning as officers due to spurning the vaccine order.

But, the committee stopped short of fully mandating reinstatement and backpay for servicemembers who refused the vaccine, something lawmakers, experts and military members have advocated for.

Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz succeeded in passing an amendment that commissions a report from DOD on the “the cost and effort needed to re-recruit, reinstate, offer backpay, and $15,000 bonuses for service members discharged for refusal to take the coronavirus vaccine,” according to the bill.

At least one Democrat voted in favor of each amendment, according to Connor O’Brien of Politico.

Committee ranking member Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington had argued strongly against each amendment on the House floor on the basis that servicemembers who refused the vaccine chose to disobey a lawful order and thus accepted any consequences resulting from that decision.

“Within the military, orders should not be viewed as optional,” Smith said. “For this committee to come back afterward and tell service members that they have the option basically of whether or not to obey the orders of their commanders, I think is a really dangerous precedent.”

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