Pentagon Watchdog to Investigate Handling of COVID-19 Vaccine Exemption Requests

Pentagon Watchdog to Investigate Handling of COVID-19 Vaccine Exemption Requests
A military member prepares a COVID-19 vaccine in Fort Knox, Ky., on Sept. 9, 2021. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
Zachary Stieber

The Pentagon’s inspector general will review how the military has handled requests for exemptions from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The watchdog informed top military officials of the probe in a recent memorandum.

“The objective of this audit is to determine whether the military departments are processing exemption requests for the Coronavirus Disease–2019 vaccination and taking disciplinary actions for active duty service members in accordance with federal and DoD guidance,” Timothy Wimette, a deputy assistant inspector general in the Inspector General’s Office, told officials.

“We may revise the objective as the audit proceeds, and we will also consider suggestions from management for additional or revised objectives.”

In August 2021, Austin ordered troops to get a COVID-19 vaccine, saying the move was necessary to maintain military readiness because it would prevent COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

Since then, the effectiveness of all vaccines has waned considerably, especially since the Omicron virus variant became dominant in most countries in late 2021. While federal health authorities still recommend widespread vaccination, outside experts are divided on the issue.

Troops could apply for exemptions on religious or medical grounds. The military branches have granted nearly 10,000 medical or administrative exemptions but just 23 religious exemptions. The Army and Navy have approved none.

Three federal judges have blocked the military from punishing members that brought lawsuits in response to alleged violations of federal law in the treatment of religious exemptions; one block was upheld by an appeals court on March 1.

Daniel Meyer, a managing partner with Tully Rinckey who used to work for the Pentagon’s watchdog, said such an audit might take 18 to 24 months to complete, which would likely be too long to assist any of the court cases.

The watchdog “is going to scope it so they do not interfere with the court process,” Meyer told The Epoch Times. “They will tailor this so they look at the effectiveness of the government actions and the appropriateness of it. The report may end up as evidence, but they’re going to be careful to stay out of any sort of case interpretation. Most IGs are leery about weighing in in a way that they end up becoming directly involved with litigation.”

Meyer said the pending inspector general report might also be used as rationale to not implement changes to the exemption process.

Pentagon officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Acting Pentagon Inspector General Sean O'Donnell could be replaced soon because President Joe Biden in 2021 nominated Robert Storch, the National Security Agency’s inspector general, to the post. The Senate hasn’t yet voted on Storch’s nomination.

The probe was announced as the Marine Corps said that 873 Marines have been separated for refusing to get a vaccine, joining 607 members from other branches.