House members have introduced legislation that would prohibit dishonorable discharges for military members who do not get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Navy announced soldiers had 90 days to get the vaccine. The Army and the Air Force are expected to make similar announcements this week.
Army veteran Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) sponsored the legislation which requires only honorable discharges for service members who are unvaccinated. It was added to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, which was passed with bipartisan support on Thursday by the House Armed Services Committee.
“No American who raises their hand to serve our Nation should be punished for making a highly personal medical decision,” Green said in a statement.
“Many Americans have reservations about taking a vaccine that has only been available for less than a year,” according to the proposed bill. “Reports of adverse actions being taken or threatened by military leadership at all levels are antithetical to our fundamental American values.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said service members are being asked to “protect their fellow Americans” by getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
“It is just baffling that service members don’t sign up for that. You put your life on the line to protect the country, but you won’t take a shot to protect the country? It’s something that as long as I live I will never understand,” Smith told the media.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said during a briefing with reporters last week that service members will be allowed religious exemptions. He also said commanders will have a range of options that stop short of punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Pentagon has repeatedly avoided saying if service members will be dishonorably discharged for refusing the vaccine.
As of Aug. 18, roughly 63% of all U.S. forces had received at least one dose or were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Pentagon.
“I believe that the military should be able to require these vaccines, and I think every person of sound judgment in this country should take a vaccine,” Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, told the Military Time. “However, if somebody in good faith in the military says they can’t do it, they shouldn’t be stained for the rest of their lives with a dishonorable discharge.”
A dishonorable discharge is a punitive discharge. Under this separation for the military, a service member would no longer be eligible for any Veterans Affairs benefits. As a result, they could also be excluded from certain civilian jobs.
According to Military.com, “the House legislation barring dishonorable discharges now must go to a vote in the full chamber. The House version of the massive, must-pass defense authorization bill also must be reconciled with the Senate version in conference, where controversial measures often are eliminated. In any case, the bill is unlikely to be signed into law until months after all the military services are enforcing COVID-19 inoculations.”
It is not clear if the provision would be retroactive should other-than-honorable dismissals take place before the legislative language becomes law.