Thousands of Troops with COVID Vaccine Exemption Requests No Longer Facing Separation with Mandate Gone

A technician administers a vaccine at Tinker Air Force Base.
A technician with the 507th Medical Group administers a vaccine at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. Dec. 3, 2022. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Grady Epperly)

Thousands of troops across all services who had pending religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine are no longer facing the risk of separation from the military after the Pentagon announced it won't review their cases anymore in the wake of a law eliminating the vaccine mandate.

In total, 17,500 troops were seeking a religious exemption, according to an internal Defense Department document reviewed by An additional 19,000 troops had already had their religious exemption requests adjudicated, with only a fraction being approved across the active duty and reserve components.

The Marine Corps approved the fewest, with only 0.52% of requests approved; the Air Force and Space Force, 2.31%; the Navy, 1.02%; and the Army, 6.04%.

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While the Biden administration has stood firm on the vaccine mandate since it was implemented in August 2021, pressure from Republicans in Congress to eliminate the requirement has mounted ever since. As part of a compromise to allow the annual defense policy bill to pass in December, a provision was added that required the elimination of the mandate across the services.

The internal Defense Department document said that the services had stopped pursuing the separation of service members in December, in compliance with the law.

Although the mandate led to a string of court cases and pressure from some political groups, the vaccine itself was relatively noncontroversial for most troops, with 98% of the active-duty force being fully vaccinated. There is also no evidence that the mandate impacted recruiting efforts, although that suggestion has been prevalent among some conservative commentators and politicians.

But the vaccine and other efforts to mitigate the health impacts of COVID-19 were almost instantly politicized by some Republican lawmakers and right-wing media, pushing some to seek a religious exemption despite existing requirements that troops receive at least a dozen other vaccines against ailments like the flu and hepatitis that have faced little opposition.

Roughly 8,000 service members were booted from the force as a result of the mandate, although the defense bill did not require that they be offered the chance to return with the elimination of the vaccine requirement. The Pentagon has provided no indication that it will look to reinstate those service members.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

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