New Spending Bill Includes an End to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate for U.S. Troops

U.S. military forces worldwide will no longer be required to get a Covid-19 vaccine after the passage of the $858 billion defense spending bill that includes lifting the mandate. Congress passed the bill and signed it into law by President Joe Biden on Friday.

The Defense Department has 30 days to work out the details of rescinding the mandate. Friday, the Pentagon said that all military services would pause any further personnel actions, including discharging any troops who refused the vaccine, and troops would continue to be encouraged to get vaccinated and boosted.

President Biden had agreed with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that lifting the mandate was not in the military’s best interest and opposed the Republican-backed provision, according to officials at the White House. Ultimately, the president accepted demands from the GOP to win the passage of the bill.

The issue, which has divided America, forced over 8,400 troops out of the military for declining to get the vaccine and refusing to obey a lawful order to receive it. Thousands of other military members have sought medical or religious exemptions.

The new law puts an end to the exemption requests. However, questions still need to be made about whether limited restrictions remain, which could continue to require it for troops assigned to areas where the vaccination is still required or on specific missions.

Secretary Austin instituted the mandate last August as the coronavirus raged and the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine. He has remained staunch in his desire to keep the immunization mandatory as he felt it was necessary to protect the troops’ health. Austin and other defense leaders argued that troops had been required to get as many as 17 vaccines for decades. Troops deployed overseas are particularly affected.

After Biden signed the defense bill on Friday, he said in a statement that specific provisions “raise concerns,” however, overall, it “provides vital benefits and enhances access to justice for military personnel and their families, and includes critical authorities to support our country’s national defense, foreign affairs, and homeland security.”

The bill includes around $45 billion more than Biden requested for defense programs and around 10% more than last year’s bill as lawmakers try to figure in inflation and boost the military competitiveness with Russia and China. The bill also includes a 4.6% pay raise for the Defense Department’s civilian workforce and servicemembers.

According to U.S. officials, the department will use the 30 days to work out details of the rescinding of the vaccine mandate, if flexibility will be left to chiefs and service secretaries, and what specific orders will come from Austin.

Services members want clear, specific guidance

Officials in the defense department who are familiar with the ongoing discussions said high-level meetings with spirited talks had been held. Service members have made clear they want specific guidance and for all branches to implement the new directive in the same way.

The department will not be required to bring back service members discharged after failing to obey an order and refusing the vaccine. An amendment to the bill that would have required their reinstatement, including back pay, could not pass.

According to data gathered by the military, by early December, there have been 3,717 Marines discharged from service, the highest among all branches. There Navy has discharged 2,041, followed by the Army at 1,841 and 834 from the Air Force. The data from the Air Force include the Space Force.

It is still being determined if the services facing growing recruitment crises will allow some service members to return if they still meet all requirements, including fitness.

Lawmakers argued that ending the vaccine mandate could help with recruiting. Defense Department officials have pushed back against that claim saying that although it may help out in a minor way, a survey found that a significant majority said the mandate didn’t change the likelihood of whether they would enlist.