Army: ‘Relief of duties, discharge’ possible for those who refuse COVID-19 vaccine

The U.S. Army announced Tuesday a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for soldiers was being implemented, and warned that members who refuse could be subject to "relief of duties" or "discharge."

The Army began implementing the secretary of defense’s order last month, following full approval of Pfizer’s two-dose shot by the Food and Drug Administration. Before then, COVID-19 vaccines had been optional.

Active-duty units are now expected to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 15, 2021, and reserve and National Guard units are expected to be fully vaccinated by June 30, 2022.

Soldiers may request administrative or medical exemptions.

Soldiers who refuse the vaccine without an exemption could face administrative or non-judicial punishment – to include relief of duties or discharge, a release from the Army stated. They will first be counseled by their chain of command and medical providers. 

Additionally, commanders, command sergeants major, first sergeants and officers in Command Select List (CSL) positions who refuse to be vaccinated and are not pending an exemption request face suspension and relief if they refuse to comply.

According to the Pentagon, more than 1.3 million troops are on active duty and close to 800,000 are in the Guard and reserve. As of Sept. 8, more than 1.1 million service members were fully vaccinated and nearly 297,000 more had received at least one shot, according to the Defense Department

Defense officials have said it's critical for troops to get the vaccine because they live and work closely together and outbreaks could hamper the U.S. military's ability to defend America.

Troops will be able to get their Pfizer shots at their bases and from their commands around the world. The Pentagon has said it has enough vaccine supply to meet demand. Individual service members may also go out and get any of the other COVID-19 vaccines on their own.

Fulfilling the vaccine mandate, however, may be a challenge for National Guard forces who are scattered around the country and gather just once a month for their required drills.

In a memo issued last month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin noted that the mandate will allow for exemptions that are consistent with the current policies for all the other vaccines. Members of the U.S. military are already required to get as many as 17 different vaccines, depending on where they are deployed. 

Permanent exemptions include serious medical reactions to the vaccine, immune deficiencies such as HIV infection, and "evidence of existing immunity" by a serologic antibody test or "documentation of previous infection or natural infection presumed."

There also are administrative exemptions, including one for religious reasons. The religious exemption is granted by the military services based on their policies, and it appears to be relatively rare. The decision is made by commanders based on consultation with medical personnel and chaplains.

In a message to the force earlier this month, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Department of Defense’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said medical professionals recommend the vaccine and that getting the shot is key to maintaining a military that is prepared to defend the nation. At the bottom of his message, Milley scrawled a handwritten note: "Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is a key force protection and readiness issue."

Nationwide, nearly 54% of the population is fully vaccinated with one of the country’s three options, from Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Moderna has also applied to the FDA for full approval of its vaccine. J&J said it hopes to do so later this year.

This story was reported from Detroit. The Associated Press contributed.