In a Thursday press conference, Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS) said if Biden were to pursue dishonorable discharges for service members who refuse the COVID vaccine mandate for all military members, he would turn those service members into felons.
“President Biden wants to turn heroes into felons. That’s what his policy is doing,” Marshall said. “. . .Think about the consequences of a dishonorable discharge. . .You would lose your access to G.I. bill for more education, you would lose access to VA home loans, your VA medical benefits, Military funeral honors . . .They cannot enlist in another branch, they will lose ownership of firearms and ammunitions and, in some states, they can lose their voting rights. This is a big issue. It’s going to make our nation less secure.”
In September, Marshall introduced both the COVID-19 Vaccine Dishonorable Discharge Prevention Act, and proposed an amendment to the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with similar language, that would preclude the military from issuing dishonorable discharges to service members who refuse the vaccines. Marshall’s legislation would only allow honorable discharges for service members separated on the basis of refusing the vaccine shots.
Marshall’s legislation and proposed NDAA amendment mirror language that the House of Representatives already agreed to on their version of the 2022 defense bill. Marshall’s legislation already has the support of Sens. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Roger Wicker (R-MS) Ron Johnson (R-WI), Rick Scott (R-FL), John Kennedy (R-LA), Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), James Lankford (R-OK), Shelley Moore-Capito (R-WV), and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS).
Biden came out in opposition to the honorable discharge guarantee included in the House version of the NDAA. In a Statement of Administrative Policy the White House said such a guarantee of an honorable discharge “would detract from readiness and limit a commander’s options for enforcing good order and discipline when a Service member fails to obey a lawful order to receive a vaccination. To enable a uniformed force to fight with discipline, commanders must have the ability to give orders and take appropriate disciplinary measures.”
Any discharge status other than an Honorable Discharge can result in a loss of veteran benefits, and a Dishonorable Discharge is the equivalent of a felony.
It remains unclear how the various military services will ultimately address those service members who refuse the vaccine mandate. Last month, the Navy announced service members separated only for refusing the vaccine would receive no lower than a general discharge under honorable conditions. Such a discharge status can still result in a loss of some veterans’ benefits.
During a Monday press conference, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby was asked about how the military will handle punishments as the various vaccination deadlines in each service pass. Kirby was specifically asked about whether service members may face disparate punishments based on their different military services and decisions by individual commands.
Kirby replied that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has “been very clear with the leaders of the military departments that he wants them to execute the mandate with a sense of compassion and understanding” but also said a range of punishment options will remain open to individual commands.
“The reason the UCMJ is set up the way it is is so that there is a menu of options for how commanders can deal with offenses against the UCMJ for a violation of lawful orders,” Kirby said. “And each service, each unit within each service has a different set of operational requirements and demands, deployment schedules, the op tempo. And the secretary very much doesn’t want to be in the business of telling commanders at local levels exactly how, if they have to resolve themselves to using administrative or punitive measure, how exactly they should do that.”
It also remains unclear how the military will handle vaccine waiver requests.
This week, the Department of the Air Force’s vaccine mandate deadline for active service passed with 8,486 Air Force Airmen and Space Force Guardians having missed the deadline. Of those service members who missed the deadline, the department granted medical exemptions for 1,634 service members and administrative exemptions for another 232 service members.
While 4,933 of the 8,486 unvaccinated service members had requested a religious exemption, the department has not granted any religious exemption requests so far.
This week, Navy Times reported the Department of the Navy has, thus far, granted just five permanent medical exemptions to its vaccine mandate, but no religious exemptions.