Soldiers have limited options to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, and may have a hard time claiming an exemption if they have never protested a dozen-plus other vaccines the Defense Department mandates for all troops, according to new Army guidelines.
Punishments for troops, especially senior leaders, who steadfastly refuse without an exemption could include discharge.
The Army on Tuesday issued a service-wide directive on vaccine mandates, the last service branch to do so. But it has mandated the slowest timeline within the military, giving soldiers a long window to be inoculated.
Its active-duty troops have until Dec. 15 to be vaccinated, while the Air Force and Space Force issued a Nov. 2 deadline. Marines and sailors have until Nov. 28. Meanwhile, soldiers in the Army National Guard and Reserve have until June 30, 2022, to get inoculated, a full half-year longer than any other reserve service. Air National Guard members must be vaccinated by Dec. 2.
"Given the size, scale and geographic dispersal of the National Guard workforce, we understand it will take additional time to develop an implementation plan that would be most feasible for fully vaccinating our personnel," Christina Mundy, a National Guard Bureau spokesperson, wrote in an email.
A total of 1.1 million troops are already fully vaccinated against the virus, which has infected more than 238,000 service members and killed 46, according to the Pentagon's latest update.
It remains unclear whether some service members still may refuse to take the shot after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered mandatory vaccinations in August. The Pentagon has said the requirement is considered a lawful order by the military.
Soldiers who refuse could face "administrative or non-judicial punishment [under the Uniform Code of Military Justice] -- to include relief of duties or discharge," according to the new Army guidelines obtained by Military.com.
Administrative action includes initiating what is called a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand, or GOMOR, for all refusals without an allowed exemption. The reprimand is widely seen as a military career killer but can, under certain circumstances, be tossed from a soldier's record.
All judicial action will be launched by colonels in a soldier's chain of command, or a general in units without a colonel.
Soldiers who have pending decisions on medical or religious exemptions will not face any adverse action.
As a first step in the process, soldiers who refuse will be formally counseled, effectively creating a paper trail for leaders to show they discussed a topic with a soldier. The Army already has issued a template for units.
Then, the service requires that they watch an educational video from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explaining the science behind the vaccines.
If the soldier continues to refuse, they will "meet with a medical professional to further discuss the benefits of vaccination and address the soldier's concerns," according to the Army documents. Continued refusal will prompt the soldier's commander to consult with the Judge Advocate General's Corps, the legal arm of the Army.
That process can lead to discharge. "Commanders will initiate mandatory separation of soldiers who refuse the vaccine," the Army warned.
Two vaccine exemptions are available, but it is unlikely either will be approved if soldiers making the request have not already refused other mandatory vaccines required by the military, such as smallpox, influenza and hepatitis.
Receiving a religious exemption also could be an uphill battle after major religious institutions and leaders have supported the vaccine on moral grounds to save lives.
Soldiers claiming a religious exemption will be interviewed by an Army chaplain, who will "assess the basis and sincerity of belief" behind the objections and write a memo to the chain of command.
After meeting with a chaplain, the soldier will be ordered to meet with a medical official, who will "counsel the soldier to ensure they are making an informed decision on risk."
Medical Exemptions & Pregnant Women
Medical exemptions may be given to soldiers with legitimate health concerns backed by medical professionals. For example, soldiers who had adverse reactions to previous vaccines may be excused from future shots.
However, adverse reactions, such as heart inflammation, are incredibly rare.
Those seeking a medical exemption still will be counseled by their commander and referred to a medical professional for evaluation.
Exemptions may be temporary, given for up to a year, or permanent, according to the Army documents. An Army medical professional will decide whether a soldier's medical concerns are valid; if so, that will be documented in the service member's medical records.
Pregnant soldiers may seek a waiver to delay their vaccine until after pregnancy, after meeting with a health care provider. But Army documents note, “Getting a vaccine could help both mother and the fetus. Pregnant women have a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 than nonpregnant women.”
The American College of Obstetrics & Gynecologists says there is no evidence of adverse effects of the vaccine on pregnant women or their babies. Meanwhile, there is emerging evidence that unvaccinated women are at risk of having a stillbirth after contracting COVID-19.
Senior Leaders Face Quick Action If They Refuse
There is very little wiggle room for senior Army leaders in the service's new guidelines.
Commanders, sergeants major, first sergeants and other senior officers who refuse the vaccine order and don't have a pending exemption decision "will be suspended ... provided a reasonable period not to exceed five calendar days to respond, and then be subject to relief of their duties," the Army documents say.
"I believe accountability starts with Leaders -- you cannot lead Soldiers by disobeying lawful orders," the force's top enlisted leader, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, said Tuesday on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with more information about medical exemptions for pregnant women.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.