Fewer than 10 of the more than 2,000 sailors discharged for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine have expressed interest in rejoining the Navy now that the shot isn't required, a service official told lawmakers Tuesday.
"We've had single digits in terms of numbers of individuals who explored the option of returning to service," Navy Under Secretary Erik Raven said during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee's personnel subcommittee.
Testifying alongside Raven, Army Under Secretary Gabe Camarillo said he did not know how many soldiers have sought to return, and Air Force Under Secretary Gina Ortiz Jones did not address how many airmen want to rejoin.
Tuesday's hearing was the personnel subcommittee's first under the chairmanship of Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., who has said he wants to use the post to target "woke" Pentagon policies. Republicans use the term woke to refer to a wide range of Biden administration policies they disagree with, including the military's now-defunct COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Republicans, despite controlling neither chamber of Congress at the time, successfully fought for a provision in last year's defense policy bill repealing the Pentagon's COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Service members are required to take about a dozen other vaccines, but Republicans argued the mandate trampled on individual liberties and hurt the military as a whole by discharging thousands of troops at a time when the military is struggling with recruitment.
With the mandate gone, Republicans have vowed to continue fighting to reinstate, with back pay, the more than 8,000 troops who were discharged for refusing when ordered to get the vaccine.
Officials at Tuesday's hearing indicated they have no plans to initiate a special process to reinstate the discharged troops.
Raven, Camarillo and Jones, as well as Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel Gil Cisneros, testified that troops who were discharged over the mandate can use the same procedure as anyone else who wants to rejoin the military: either talk to a recruiter about reenlisting or go through the correction of military records process.
As the military services formally rescind their mandate-related policies, officials have said they will automatically adjust records for service members who requested exemptions but were punished solely for vaccine refusal so they are not passed over for promotion. They've also pledged to halt any discharge proceedings for troops who requested exemptions.
But what will happen to service members who refused the vaccine without requesting a religious, medical or administrative exemption is still an open question. Cisneros suggested Tuesday those troops could still face punishment, including discharge, but that the military services are still reviewing those cases.
"Those who refused the vaccine and did not put in a request for accommodation refused a lawful order," Cisneros testified. "In order to maintain good order and discipline, it's very important that our service members go and follow orders when they are lawful, and there are several or thousands that did not."
Camarillo, Raven and Jones said each case will be decided on its own merits, suggesting that some may have aggravating circumstances or other misconduct beyond refusing the vaccine.
"There are a number of cases that we still have yet to review for individual soldiers who, as Secretary Cisneros said, chose to not comply with a lawful order," Camarillo said. "There may be, in any instance, numerous violations of the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] or other areas in which there might be circumstances to look at disciplinary procedures."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.