The Department of Defense's watchdog announced it is opening an investigation into how the military services have been conducting exemption requests for the COVID-19 vaccination mandate, as well as related disciplinary actions, according to a statement released Monday.
The Pentagon's Inspector General said that its audit will look to see whether exemption requests and punishments are "in accordance with Federal and DoD guidance."
The move comes after at least three different federal cases filed by vaccine-refusing service members resulted in judges putting a hold on the services disciplining their members for refusing the shot, citing the exemption process as particularly problematic.
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In a case filed in Florida by more than 30 unnamed personnel from all the military branches, the judge said that "the record creates a strong inference that the services are discriminatorily and systematically denying religious exemptions without a meaningful and fair hearing" when he ordered the Navy to halt proceedings against two officers -- one Navy and the other serving in the Marine Corps.
Meanwhile, in a similar Texas case brought by more than 30 Navy special forces members -- mostly SEALs -- the judge's initial pause on punishment was upheld by the Court of Appeals. The sailors in that case "claim their accommodation requests are futile because denial is a predetermined outcome," according to court filings.
In mid-February, a judge in Georgia also issued a similar hold for an Air Force officer.
In all, the services have granted only a handful of religious exemptions despite receiving thousands of requests. The Marine Corps granted three in January -- albeit to Marines on their way out of the Corps -- and the Air Force granted nine in early February. However, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, exemptions for vaccines were rare. Navy and Marine Corps spokespeople have previously said that the services hadn't granted such an exemption in at least seven years.
Several service members who have refused to get the vaccine told Military.com in recent interviews that the similarity of their rejection letters, which didn't directly address their stated reasons for avoiding the vaccine, was evidence that their waiver applications weren't adequately considered.
The inspector general noted that it "may revise the objective as the audit proceeds" and that it is open to military leaders suggesting "additional or revised objectives."
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
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