Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called for service commanders to enforce the COVID-19 vaccine mandate with compassion when unvaccinated service members face punitive measures as the deadline approaches, a Pentagon spokesman said on Monday.
According to the latest data issued by the Pentagon, nearly 60,000 active duty service members are still not vaccinated as of late last week. Officials said the numbers change daily and include those who may have gotten or requested an exemption.
“The secretary has been very clear with the leaders of the military departments that he wants them to execute the mandate with a sense of compassion and understanding,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday. “I know he’s made this clear to them that he knows, as a former commander himself, that leaders have a range of tools available to them, to help troops make the right decisions for themselves, for the units, for the families—short of using the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), therefore, short of punitive measures.”
“But clearly, it’s a lawful order. And so, he also trusts that commanders will ultimately do what they need to do for the readiness of their unit. And if that comes to doing something of a punitive nature, they certainly have that right and that authority. It’s just that the secretary wants them to exhaust other measures before having to do that,” Kirby added.
Kirby also provided updates on the vaccination rate of service members as of Monday. A total of 97 percent of the active-duty force has had at least one dose, including 99 percent of active-duty sailors, around 97 percent of airmen, 93 percent of the Marine Corps, and 90 percent of the army.
Pentagon has said that unit commanders around the world would make exemption decisions for medical, religious, and administrative reasons on a “case-by-case” basis.
Kirby explained that administrative exemptions include those who plan on retiring soon.
It’s unclear how widely religious exemptions will be granted.
Pentagon officials must explain in detail how troops can apply for a religious exemption, the procedure for resolving the request, the criteria by which applications are judged, and the procedure the people deciding on each request use to judge them, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday, a George H. W. Bush appointee, ordered on Oct. 29.
The Pentagon must file the details by Nov. 12.
Commanders can also move service members into another job, deny them overseas deployment, or limit unit access if they get an exemption or while a request is being reviewed. Those steps may be more common in smaller units such a special operations forces.
The Air Force is the first to hit a deadline with more than 335,000 airmen and Space Force guardians to be fully vaccinated by Tuesday. The deadline for the Air Guard and Reserve is Dec. 2. According to Air Force data, as many as 12,000 active-duty airmen and guardians were still unvaccinated as of late last week. Some have requested or gotten exemptions. Others have refused outright.
Any refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, absent an approved medical or administrative exemption or accommodation, may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), an Air Force spokesperson told The Epoch Times via email.
“Military commanders retain the full range of disciplinary options available to them under Article 92 of the UCMJ and must consult with their servicing Staff Judge Advocate for additional guidance on vaccination non-compliance,” the email reads.
The spokesperson also told The Epoch Times that the Air Force would update the numbers Wednesday midday, including exemption numbers.
The maximum punishment for a violation or failure to obey lawful general order or regulation under UCMJ Article 92 is dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for two years, according to Gary Myers, Daniel Conway & Associates, a law firm that specializes in defending service members.
The more than 765,000 Defense Department civilians will be next after the Air Force, with a mandated vaccine date of Nov. 22. Civilians have until Nov. 8 to seek an exemption, and as of last week, fewer than half had provided vaccination proof.
Kirby said the Pentagon is still working on some additional implementing guidance for the civilian workforce that will come out very soon.
More than half of the Army National Guard has gotten at least one shot, while the Air Guard is at 87 percent. Air Guard members must be fully vaccinated by early December, while the Army Guard, which is much larger and more widely scattered around the country, has until June.
The nearly 350,000 Navy sailors and more than 179,000 Marines must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 28 and the reserves by Dec. 28. The Army, the military’s largest service with nearly 490,000 soldiers, has until Dec. 15 to be fully vaccinated. Army National Guard and Reserve, with a total of almost 800,000 Guard and Reserve troops, have until June 30, 2022.
Zachary Stieber and The Associated Press contributed to this report.