“Right now, we are not pursuing, as a matter of policy, back pay for those who refused the vaccine,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a spokesman for the Defense Department, told reporters in response to one of several questions about the issue.
“At the time those orders were refused, it was a lawful order,” Ryder added.
He spoke a week after the Pentagon formally rescinded the policy that required all troops to receive the shots with very few exemptions, in line with new legislation signed into law on Dec. 23 that forced the change. Politico had reported on Friday, citing an unnamed spokesperson, that the department was considering issuing back pay at that time. Ryder on Tuesday distanced the Pentagon from any such speculation.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in announcing the congressionally mandated repeal was unapologetic for the policy, saying in a memo on Jan. 10 that he is “deeply proud for the Department’s work to combat the coronavirus disease,” which he said “will leave a lasting legacy in the many lives we saved.” He cited the orders from Congress that he change the policy, said no further service members would be discharged for refusing the vaccine and announced that any troops under existing investigation or judicial process would be cleared.
It remains unclear the extent to which the department would allow service members who have been discharged to rejoin. However, Tuesday’s statements following Austin’s memo align with a general air in the department of disinterest in further accommodating those affected by the policy.
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Roughly 99% of all active-duty troops received the vaccine. More than 8,400 service members were discharged from the military for refusing to take it. All of those kicked out of military service received at least a “general discharge under honorable conditions,” with others receiving the higher “honorable discharge.” The difference affects medical and other benefits service members receive after leaving the military.
Republicans in Congress raised almost immediate alarm after Austin first announced the policy in August 2021, followed by a series of deadlines that each department determined for itself, beginning with the Air Force and Space Force at the beginning of November that year.
Then-Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee at the time, expressed particular concern that November that he did not believe the military had a clear understanding of how the mandate would affect the military at a time several branches, particularly the Army, were already suffering from dramatic recruitment shortfalls.
Those concerns accelerated in the new Congress when the House succeeded in adding the policy overturn in the latest defense budget, which some Democrats eventually endorsed to ensure the bill’s passage.
Republican members centered particularly on an assertion that the vaccine mandate – like other so-called “woke” policies – contributed to massive military recruitment deficits, particularly acute in the Army, which missed its 2022 goals by 25%. The Pentagon says no data exists supporting a link between the two issues.
“Look, I’ve been vaccinated and I’ve had COVID. … I’ll recommend from my point of view you get vaccinated,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said at a press conference with other members of his party in December. “We’re having a dilemma, and that’s finding people to serve in the military. Our recruiting goals are way short. The conflict in the world is getting worse, not better. We need more people in the military, not less.”
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California, then the top-ranked Republican in the House, tweeted at the time that the military vaccine mandate was “wrong.”
“Our heroes have been fired. Our country is less safe. I told the President directly – it’s time to end the mandate and rehire our service members,” McCarthy said.