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Air Force discharges 27 people for refusal to get vaccinated

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks during a news briefing at the Pentagon in November.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

The Air Force has discharged 27 people for refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19, making them the first service members believed to be removed for disobeying the mandate to get the shots.

The Air Force gave its members until Nov. 2 to get the vaccine, and thousands have either refused or sought an exemption. Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said Monday that these were the first Air Force personnel to be administratively discharged for reasons involving the vaccine.

She said all of them were in their first term of enlistment, so they were younger, lower-ranking service members. And while the Air Force does not disclose what type of discharge a service member gets, legislation working its way through Congress limits the military to giving troops in vaccination-refusal cases an honorable discharge or a general discharge under honorable conditions.

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The Pentagon earlier this year required the vaccine for all members of the military, including those on active duty, in the National Guard and in the reserve corps. Each of the services set its own deadlines and procedures for the mandate; the Air Force set the earliest deadline. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has said the vaccine is critical to maintaining the health of the force and its ability to respond to a national security crisis.

None of the 27 people discharged had sought a medical, administrative or religious exemption, Stefanek said. Several officials from the other service branches said they believe that so far only the Air Force has reached this stage of the process and discharged people over vaccination refusal.

As a result, they were formally removed from service for failure to obey an order. Stefanek said it was possible some also had other infractions on their records, but all had vaccination refusal as one of the elements of their discharge.

Indications are that mandates are causing more vaccinations, not resignations.

It is not unusual for members of the military to be thrown out of the service for disobeying an order; discipline is a key tenet of the armed services. Stefanek said that, in the first three quarters of 2021, about 1,800 Air Force personnel were discharged for failure to follow orders.

According to the latest Air Force data, more than 1,000 people have refused the shot and more than 4,700 are seeking a religious exemption. As of last week, slightly more than 97% of active-duty Air Force personnel had received at least one shot.

Members of the Navy and the Marine Corps had until Nov. 28 to get the shots, and their reserve members have until Dec. 28. Army active-duty soldiers have until Wednesday, and members of the Army National Guard and reserve have the most time to be vaccinated, with a deadline of June 30.

Across the military, the response to vaccine mandates has mirrored that of society as a whole, with thousands seeking exemptions or refusing the shots. But overall, the percentage of troops — particularly active-duty members — who quickly got the shots exceeds the proportion in the population as a whole.

The Los Angeles police union had argued for a preliminary injunction, which would have halted the mandate for officers while a lawsuit moved forward.

As of Friday, the Pentagon said that 96.4% of active-duty personnel have gotten at least one shot. The figure drops to about 74%, however, when the Guard and reserve corps are included. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 72% of the U.S. population 18 and older have gotten at least one shot.

Austin has made it clear that the Guard and reserve corps are also subject to the mandate, and has warned that those who fail to comply risk their continued service in the military. But that has proven to be contentious.

Oklahoma’s Republican governor and attorney general have already filed a federal lawsuit challenging the military mandate for the state’s Guard. Gov. Kevin Stitt — the first state leader to publicly challenge the mandate — is arguing that Austin is overstepping his constitutional authority.

Stitt had asked Austin to suspend the mandate for the Oklahoma National Guard and directed his new adjutant general to assure members that they would not be punished for not being vaccinated.

Austin rejected the request and said unvaccinated Guard members would be barred from federally funded drills and training required to maintain their Guard status.

Oklahoma’s adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, posted a letter on the state Guard website warning his troops that those who refused the vaccine could see their military careers ended.

“Anyone ... deciding not to take the vaccine, must realize that the potential for career ending federal action, barring a favorable court ruling, legislative intervention, or a change in policy is present,” Mancino wrote.


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