Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall succeeded on Wednesday in his effort to restrict how members of the military who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19 are punished.
Marshall was able to add language to the National Defense Authorization Act — the bill that funds the military — to say that people fired from the military for refusing the vaccine must be honorably discharged or discharged under honorable conditions.
Honorable discharges are usually reserved for people who were rated good or excellent for their service. It means service members who are discharged for refusing the vaccine would still be eligible for most of their military benefits.
“Unfortunately the sledgehammer policy of the White House says that one size has to fit all,” Marshall said on the floor of the Senate before Thanksgiving, arguing for his provision. “They refuse to consider natural immunity.”
The provision is added as thousands of members of the military have refused to get the vaccine, even as the threat of another surge in cases from the Omicron variant looms.
In arguing for the provision, Marshall muddied the ways in which someone can be discharged by the military.
There are five different types of discharges from the military: honorable discharges, general discharges, other than honorable discharges, bad conduct discharges and dishonorable discharges.
On the floor of the Senate, Marshall talked about some of the consequences of a dishonorable discharge — which is the most severe discharge and can only happen if someone is court martialed. It is unlikely members of the military will be court martialed, which usually is reserved for crimes like murder and treason, for refusing the vaccine.
The Army, for example, has said soldiers who don’t get vaccinated without an exemption could face suspension, a reprimand or be removed from promotion lists. The Marine Corps has said members will be “separated” from the service for refusing the vaccine. So far they have not granted any religious exemptions.
“We’re just taking that worst case scenario off the table,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, who cosponsored the amendment. “That relieves the commanders, it relieves the Department of Defense, it relieves even the joint chiefs of staff from making a different decision. And they should be relieved with that relief.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the vaccine requirement for the military in late August.
The Air Force announced a 97 percent vaccination rate on November 3, the day after the deadline it set for active duty members to get vaccinated.
Earlier this week, the Air Force discharged 27 members for refusing to get the vaccine. They are the only branch of the military that has discharged members.
The Navy and U.S. Marine Corps required active duty members to be vaccinated by November 28. The Army is requiring active duty members to be vaccinated by December 15.
Marshall has been an adamant opponent of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, arguing that there is not enough recognition for immunity that may have been acquired from previous infection with COVID-19. He has previously said the government is “bullying” members of the military by requiring them to get vaccinated.
Members of the military are required to get vaccinated against several diseases prior to joining the military, but Marshall’s amendment only applies to the COVID-19 vaccine. Supporters of the amendment have argued that the COVID-19 vaccine is different because service members didn’t know they would be required to get it prior to volunteering to serve.
Marshall has made COVID-19 a top priority in his first year as a U.S. senator and has pushed for the government to look into the origins of the virus.
The final bill also dropped language from the original version that would have required young women to register for the draft, which Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley opposed.
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