Following reports that at least 1,700 military service members were discharged for refusing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is asking the Pentagon for an explanation.
In a letter he co-signed along with 13 of his Republican colleagues, Lee asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to provide information about how many service members received dishonorable discharges because of their vaccination status and if those service members were denied benefits.
“While we are deeply troubled that the Department of Defense (DOD) is discharging U.S. military personnel as a result of their COVID-19 vaccination status, we are outraged that these brave men and women are potentially being stripped of various benefits, including education benefits afforded to them under the G.I. Bill,” the letter reads. “Whatever disagreements public officials of varying ideologies and political parties may have, we can and should agree on the importance of ensuring the promises made to members of our Armed Forces are fulfilled.”
The Department of Defense announced a vaccine requirement for service personnel in a memo last August, and in February, the U.S. Army announced it would “immediately begin separating soldiers from the service who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19.”
In March, Military.com reported that the Army had issued 3,251 reprimands over the mandate and 1,700 service members across the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force had been discharged.
Unlike the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for businesses — which the Supreme Court blocked in January — the Pentagon’s vaccine requirement has been allowed to stand. In March, the Supreme Court reinstated the mandate and ruled against a group of Navy SEALs who challenged the mandate on religious freedom grounds, according to NPR.
“Even one SEAL who falls ill — as an unvaccinated individual is far more likely to do — can jeopardize an entire mission,” Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote, “The Navy has an extraordinarily compelling interest in maintaining strategic and operational control over the assignment and deployment of all Special Warfare personnel — including control over decisions about military readiness.”
Medical and religious exemptions to the vaccine requirement were also at the heart of Lee’s letter to the Pentagon. The senators asked Austin to explain the Pentagon’s “uniform standards” for reviewing exemption requests, whether they be for administrative, medical or religious reasons.
In a video posted to Twitter on Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — who co-signed the letter with Lee — questioned Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan about the rate of vaccine exemptions, which Cruz called “a disturbingly low number.”
According to Fagan, of the 1,300 total requests for exemption on religious grounds in the Coast Guard, 900 are currently being appealed and only four have been granted.
“We’ve granted four religious accommodations and continue to work ... very deliberately through the process so that each one of those requests is handled on its individual merits,” Fagan said.
The letter also asks if the Pentagon has “considered the effects of natural immunity” from a previous COVID-19 infection when setting the medical exemption standards. Lee and the other senators have asked Austin to respond to all questions by May 12.