Protections for Troops Booted over COVID Vaccine Mandate Added to House Defense Bill

Soldier receives a COVID-19 vaccination
Sgt. Andrew Petersen, left, biomedical equipment technician at SHAPE Healthcare Facility, receives a COVID-19 vaccination at the healthcare facility Jan. 8 at Mons, Belgium. (U.S. Army photo by Christophe Morel)

House Republicans moved Wednesday to protect former service members who were discharged over the military's now-defunct COVID-19 vaccine mandate, including easing their path to reinstatement.

Troops who were discharged for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine could be reinstated at the rank held when they were separated and without the discharge affecting future career advancement under one of a series of amendments related to the vaccine mandate approved by the House Armed Services Committee. The committee was debating its version of the annual defense policy bill.

The amendments would also require discharge review boards to take up requests to upgrade discharges for those booted solely over vaccine refusal; mandate that the Pentagon must reach out to discharged troops about how they can apply to be reinstated; exempt service academy students who weren't commissioned because they refused the vaccine from having to pay back their taxpayer-funded tuition; and direct the Pentagon to study how much it would cost to give the discharged troops back pay and a $15,000 bonus.

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"This provides a fair, equitable and honorable option for our wrongly separated service members," Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., said of his amendment to reinstate the discharged troops.

Banks, who also sponsored two of the other COVID-19 vaccine-related amendments, argued that his proposal is imperative "especially in a time of great need as we face the greatest recruiting crisis since the establishment of the all-volunteer force."

The five vaccine-related amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, passed largely along party lines, though a few Democrats voted with Republicans in support of the amendments.

The amendments follow Republican vows to ensure troops discharged over the vaccine mandate are reinstated after GOP lawmakers successfully fought to use last year's NDAA to repeal the vaccine requirement.

More than 8,000 troops were discharged under a mandate that the Pentagon maintains was necessary to save lives. At least 690 troops, Pentagon civilians, contractors and dependents died during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Defense Department statistics, part of the total 1.1 million who have died in the U.S.

Defense officials have said that if troops discharged under the vaccine mandate want to be reinstated, they can use the same process 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. They have also said very few of the discharged troops have expressed interest in coming back.

But Republicans have insisted the military services guarantee the discharged troops will be reinstated.

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Democrats, meanwhile, have argued that automatically reinstating troops who disobeyed a lawful order could undermine good order and discipline.

"Within the military, orders should not be viewed as optional," Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said during Wednesday's debate. "This was the order that was made by the secretary of defense and the policy, and a number of service members chose not to follow it when the consequences were made clear. For this committee to come back afterward and tell service members that they have the option basically of whether or not to obey the orders of their commanders, I think is a really dangerous precedent."

Wednesday's committee debate is one of the first steps in getting the NDAA signed into law. After the committee was expected to approve the bill Wednesday night, it will still need approval from the full House and to be reconciled with the Senate's version.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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