Soldiers Who Refuse Vaccination Can Still Serve, But Their Careers Are Over

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A medic administers a vaccination against COVID-19.
Spc. Star O’Donnell, a medic assigned to the Pennsylvania Guard’s 108th Medical Company Area Support, administers a vaccination against COVID-19 to soldiers at Forward Operating Site Powidz, Poland, on April 30, 2021. (U.S. Army Guard photo by 1st Lt. Abigail Hammock.)

Army officials are telling soldiers who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19 that they aren't getting booted immediately, but they can't stay in the service for a career.

In a memo to the force last week, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said active-duty soldiers, reservists and Guardsmen who refuse the vaccine will be "flagged," meaning they will be barred from reenlistment, promotions and potentially most schools.

But soldiers won't be outright removed automatically. Hypothetically, a soldier with years left on their contract can still serve, but will see no progress in their career and will not be allowed to serve beyond that contract. They could leave with an honorable discharge.

The deadline to be vaccinated is Dec. 15 for active-duty soldiers and June 30 for Reserve and Army National Guard troops.

"At this time, the secretary has not authorized any separations with the sole basis being refusal to follow the COVID-19 vaccination order," Lt. Col. Gabriel Ramirez, an Army spokesman, said in a statement Monday to Military.com.

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The consequences vary for more senior ranks. Sergeants major, first sergeants and officers who refuse inoculation face possible relief of duty.

The Army's decision not to discharge unvaccinated soldiers is a departure from most of the Defense Department. All other service branches have issued guidance to start removing troops who refuse inoculation. Last month, the Air Force booted 40 new recruits for refusing COVID-19 vaccinations.

Wormuth's new guidance comes amid a standoff between the Oklahoma National Guard and the Pentagon after the state's adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, made a move to overrule the Defense Department's vaccine rules, issuing a memo notifying troops they won't be required to take the COVID vaccine.

The Guard is mostly under control of the state's governor unless federally activated, making the Pentagon's authority on the matter murky. Multiple governors are considering following Oklahoma's lead, including Texas, as Republican officials are increasingly resistant to vaccines and COVID-19-related mandates.

There is little evidence of widespread anti-vaccine sentiment in the military. As of last week, 92% of active-duty soldiers are fully vaccinated, far outpacing the general U.S. population, which is at 59%, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the annual Association of the United States Army conference last month, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, the force's top enlisted leader, urged soldiers to get vaccinated, likening shots to body armor.

"Imagine I had really good body armor and you said, 'I don't want it,'" Grinston said. "Would you be able to call the family member and tell them you had that kit and didn't make them wear it? That's how I feel about it."

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

Related: Army Expects Guard Soldiers to Get the Vaccine by December If They're Going to Deploy

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