In the weeks since the military began separating troops for failing to comply with its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, the Marine Corps has consistently been the most aggressive branch, having removed 399 from the service.
Meanwhile, the Marine Corps quietly made a subtle change to how it deals with vaccine-refusing service members, making it easier for them to return.
In late December, the Corps released a message announcing it would discharge Marines with the reentry code RE-3P instead of RE-4.
The distinction is significant. A discharge with an RE-4 code is typically a bar on reenlisting in any service, while RE-3 codes would allow someone to reenlist with a waiver.
When asked about the change, Capt. Ryan Bruce, a spokesman for the Marine Corps, said, "If a Marine is willing to be vaccinated, even after separation, we would welcome them back.
"The adjusted reentry code reduces the administrative burden and timeliness of that process," Bruce added.
Despite the continued pressure by the Marine Corps to remove troops who have failed to meet the vaccine mandate, the service also announced Thursday that it had granted another religious exemption to its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, bringing the total to three.
It is the first, and so far only, branch to grant any religious exemptions to the militarywide vaccine mandate out of thousands of applications. The first two exemptions were announced by the branch on Jan. 13, 2022.
So far, the Marines are the only branch to make reenlisting easier for those removed for refusing the vaccine. Capt. Dave Hecht, a spokesman for the Navy's chief of naval personnel, told Military.com in an email that "all Navy separations based on COVID-19 vaccine refusal will normally result in an RE-4" code. However, the Navy announced last month that sailors who start getting vaccinated, weeks after the formal deadline, may be allowed to stay in.
The Air Force is apparently less rigid in its separation policy. Ann Stefanek, the branch's chief spokeswoman, told Military.com in an email that "there is no pre-established reenlistment code for those separated for vaccine refusal."
"Each case is assessed on its own merits as is the discharge characterization," she added.
The Air Force did not immediately respond to questions of whether it is mirroring the Marine Corps' policy goals of easing reentry for troops who changed their minds.
As of Jan. 21, the Air Force has discharged 111 active-duty airmen for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The most recent data released by the service showed that 96% of the total force is fully vaccinated.
One airman, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of punishment, said some of his colleagues, specifically pilots, are being told that, if they get separated, they can wait out the mandate and potentially rejoin.
The Marine Corps wouldn't comment on the idea that the policy is somehow an invitation for Marines to separate in an effort to "wait out" the mandate. "It would be inappropriate to speculate on potential changes in policy," Bruce said in response to the suggestion.
The Army, when asked for its policy, provided a status update on its overall vaccination numbers but also noted that "Army officials intend to issue further guidance for the mandatory initiation of separation for Soldiers who refuse this lawful order" later this month.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
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