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Military considering back pay for troops kicked out over vax mandate

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III during a virtual meeting with 26 different military and veteran service organizations the Pentagon, May 5, 2021 (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)
January 16, 2023

The Pentagon is looking into the possibility of back pay for former service members discharged for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which was formally canceled last week.

Opponents of the military’s vaccine mandate have long called for the more than 8,400 troops discharged for non-compliance to be reinstated with back pay. The door to reinstatement for these troops had already been opened in Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s memo ending the mandate.

And a Pentagon spokesperson confirmed to POLITICO on Friday that back pay hasn’t been ruled out.

“Regarding back pay, the Department is still exploring this and will provide its views on legislation of this nature at the appropriate time and through the appropriate process,” said Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Charlie Dietz in a Friday email to POLITICO.

Austin’s memo ending the vaccine mandate had allowed for troops to request a correction to their discharge records, paving the way for them to reenlist. It also provided for letters of reprimand and other punishments to be reversed for troops who applied for exemptions that were denied.

The memo said that no troops are to be discharged “solely on the basis” of COVID-19 vaccine refusal “if they sought an accommodation on religious, administrative, or medical grounds.” All ongoing reviews of exemption requests were to end.

However, it still allows for commanders to take individual soldiers’ immunization status into account when “making deployment, assignment, or other operational decisions.”

Austin was legally required to end the vaccine mandate by a provision of the 2023 military budget bill. Republicans were long vocally opposed to the mandate, and even Democratic support for it was relatively muted, Military Times reported, with Democrats in some cases calling for its repeal.

Some military officers cited the mandate as a contributor to recruitment shortfalls. In his memo, Austin said the military’s “vaccination efforts will leave a lasting legacy in the many lives we saved … and the high level of readiness we have maintained, amidst difficult public health conditions.”

This was a breaking news story. The details were periodically updated as more information became available.