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U.S. military moves to discharge service members who refuse to get vaccinated

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon last month. The military branches have begun discharging people who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Alex Brandon
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon last month. The military branches have begun discharging people who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Updated December 17, 2021 at 4:47 PM ET

Members of the U.S. military who haven't been vaccinated against COVID-19 are starting to face the consequences. Military officials announced this week that, after months of warnings, they have begun disciplinary actions — including discharge.

The Air Force was the first of the branches to announce dismissals, saying Tuesday it had discharged 27 people who refused to get the vaccine. On Thursday, the Marines said it had discharged 103 troops. The Army has reprimanded 2,700 soldiers and said it will begin discharge proceedings in the new year. And the Navy this week told commanders to start "administrative separations" for "vaccine refusers."

But the vast majority of the armed services have followed orders. In the Navy, 98.4% of its force fully vaccinated, according to the Associated Press. The Air Force says 97.5% have received at least one shot. Army officials said that 98% of active-duty forces have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while 96% — nearly half a million people — are fully vaccinated. About 95% of Marine Corps forces have gotten at least one shot.

That still leaves potentially thousands of active-duty soldiers who might be forced out in the coming weeks or months. Although that would slightly reduce the size of the military, the Pentagon says it's important to keep that in perspective.

In the Army's case, for instance, less than 1% of the force has refused the vaccine. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is most concerned with "the readiness of the force and the importance of the vaccine," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters. Getting the vaccine, he said, is "the best way to protect themselves and their units.

The Pentagon began requiring members of the military to get vaccinated in late summer. There are "active discussions" within the Pentagon about requiring booster shots as well, Kirby said. The booster shot provides strong protection against the omicron variant of the coronavirus, medical officials have said.

Thousands of troops across the services have asked for exemptions from the vaccine requirement, some of which have been granted. Medical exemptions are often available when, for instance, someone is allergic to a vaccine ingredient, or has an underlying health condition that could cause adverse reactions.

At least 12,000 service members have asked for religious exemptions, none of which have yet been granted. Religious exemptions are "always rare," Kirby told reporters earlier this month.

"This has absolutely nothing to do with trampling on the religious liberties of our men and women in uniform," he said. "It's about a military medical requirement to keep them safe, to keep their family safe, to keep their units safe."

The Pentagon has also required all National Guard members to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, but some states have pushed back. Republican governors from five states wrote to the defense secretary this week arguing that the Pentagon didn't have the authority to discharge Guard members for refusing the vaccine.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").
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