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Air Force Sec. says vaccine refusers may be prosecuted: ‘Take action now or be held accountable’

Capt. (Dr.) Joseph Santamaria administers COVID-19 vaccine at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, May 14, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Tory Patterson)
October 22, 2021

In a Wednesday press release addressing both members of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall thanked service members who have complied with the department’s vaccine mandate and warned those refusing the vaccines that they could face a range of consequences including “referring court-martial charges.”

Active Air Force airmen and U.S. Space Force Guardians have until November 2 to either be fully vaccinated, have an exemption, or be in the process of seeking an exemption. Reserve components have a December 2 deadline to meet the same requirements.

“Thank you to the hundreds of thousands of total force Airmen and Guardians who are fully vaccinated or on track to meet the Department’s vaccination timelines,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said. “To those yet to get vaccinated, the order is clear: You have a responsibility to take action now, protect our nation and those we love, or be held accountable for failing to do so.” 

The press release then states, “Should a service member refuse to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, commanders retain the full range of disciplinary options available to them under law and policy, some of which includes issuing administrative paperwork, imposing nonjudicial punishment, or referring court-martial charges.”

The press release explained service members could be charged under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which defines a failure to obey a lawful general order or regulation. The maximum punishment for an Article 92 violation is a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and two years confinement.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told Journal News, the likely first step for dealing with service members who refuse the vaccine would be a letter of counseling.

“If you don’t (follow the order), then you will have stronger consequences,” Stefanek said. She said an example letter of counseling might say, “My intent … is to encourage you. It’s supposed to be rehabilitative in nature.”

As of October 18, the Air Force said 96.2 percent of its active-duty population has had at least one shot. Those in the “total force” — including all active-duty, Guard and Reserve components — who have received at least one shot amounts is 92.8 percent.

Kendall’s statement serves as a direct warning that the Department of the Air Force, which oversees both the Air Force and Space Force, may seek legal punishment for those who refuse the vaccine. By comparison, the Department of the Navy said last week that sailors separated only for vaccine refusal will receive no lower than a general discharge under honorable conditions and may have to repay the Navy for bonuses, special and incentive pay, and the costs for their training and education.

A provision in the House version of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which the House passed in September, would ensure service members separated for vaccine refusal would receive an honorable discharge. President Joe Biden has come out in opposition to that provision, as well as another provision that would require the military to establish set standards for the various administrative, religious or medical reasons under which a service member may refuse a vaccine.