Service members separated from the military for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine would have to receive an honorable discharge or a general discharge under honorable conditions under a must-pass defense bill unveiled Tuesday.
That means those troops would mostly still be entitled to veterans benefits under the compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. The one exception is that someone with a general discharge under honorable conditions is not eligible for GI Bill benefits.
The measure, which is almost certain to become law, comes as thousands of service members remain unvaccinated even as the military branches reach deadlines to comply with the Pentagon vaccination mandate.
The House is scheduled to vote on the bill Tuesday night, followed later next week by the Senate.
The military branches have been hesitant to issue complete numbers of troops who have refused to take the shot, citing several reasons such as ever-changing figures and still-pending exemption requests.
The Navy, which managed to fully vaccinate 96.3% of its roughly 340,000 sailors, said it received 2,531 requests for exemptions to the vaccination mandate on religious grounds. Meanwhile, the Marine Corps, which hit 92% of roughly 181,200 active-duty Marines with two shots by the same deadline, announced 2,441 requests for religious accommodation.
The Air Force, whose deadline was the earliest, has released data that shows 1,125 airmen out of about 326,000 are considered to have refused the vaccine, though the service also has 4,756 religious requests that are still in progress.
The exemptions are meant to accommodate service members who can show their religious beliefs preclude them from being vaccinated. To date, none of the three services has approved any religious waivers.
The Navy, in a memo from its head of manpower, personnel, training and education, had already said that the lowest discharge rating a vaccine-refusing sailor could receive "without extenuating circumstances" would be a general discharge under honorable conditions. Navy spokespeople have also said more guidance on discharges is expected in the coming days.
The Marines, meanwhile, have said in a message to the force that members who refuse the vaccine and don't have an administrative or medical exemption, religious accommodation or pending appeal "shall be processed for administrative separation."
Republicans in Congress have been pushing the Pentagon to suspend its vaccine mandate, arguing that discharging potentially thousands of service members would hamper the military's ability to defend the country.
But the Pentagon has defended the mandate, saying the greater threat to the military and country is service members unable to fight because COVID-19 sickens or kills them.
Barring the Pentagon reversing course, Republicans such as Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., have sought to ensure anyone discharged would still have access to veterans benefits by prohibiting dishonorable discharges for vaccine refusal.
"While I'm disappointed that my amendment was changed from only permitting an 'honorable discharge' to permitting either an 'honorable discharge' or a 'general discharge under honorable conditions,' this legislation is still a big leap in the right direction," Green said in a statement Tuesday.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.