WASHINGTON — The Pentagon formally dropped its COVID-19 vaccination mandate Tuesday, but a new memo signed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also gives commanders some discretion in how or whether to deploy troops who are not vaccinated.
Austin’s memo has been widely anticipated ever since legislation signed into law on Dec. 23 gave him 30 days to rescind the mandate. The Defense Department had already stopped all related personnel actions, such as discharging troops who refused the shot.
“The Department will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all service members,” Austin said in the memo. “Vaccination enhances operational readiness and protects the force.”
Austin said that commanders have the authority to maintain unit readiness and a healthy force. He added, however, that other department policies — including mandates for other vaccines — remain in place. That includes, he said, “the ability of commanders to consider, as appropriate, the individual immunization status of personnel in making deployment, assignment, and other operational decisions, including when vaccination is required for travel to, or entry into, a foreign nation.”
The contentious political issue, which has divided America, forced more than 8,400 troops out of the military for refusing to obey a lawful order when they declined to get the vaccine. Thousands of others sought religious and medical exemptions. Austin’s memo ends those exemption requests.
Austin, who instituted the mandate in August 2021 after the Pfizer vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration and as the coronavirus pandemic raged, was staunch in his desire to maintain it insisting the vaccine was necessary to protect the health of the force. He and other defense leaders argued that for decades troops, particularly those deployed overseas, had been required to get as many as 17 different vaccines. No other vaccine mandates were affected by the new law.
But Congress agreed to rescind the mandate, with opponents reluctantly saying that perhaps it had already succeeded in getting the bulk of the force vaccinated. Roughly 99% of active-duty troops in the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps had gotten the vaccine, and 98% of the Army. The Guard and Reserve rates are lower, but generally are more than 90%.