The Pentagon has a “range of tools” to compel military service members to get the COVID-19 vaccine after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine last month, officials said on Thursday.
It comes as House lawmakers have backed legislation, sponsored by Army veteran Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn, which prohibits dishonorable discharges for troops who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine.
Speaking at a press briefing, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby told reporters that it was important for service members to “understand the ramifications of their decision” should they choose not to have the vaccine.
“As we’ve talked about before, the secretary expects that the department leadership will implement these mandatory vaccines with skill—but also, because we know how to do this across a range of other vaccines—but also [with] professionalism and compassion,” Kirby said.
“And when an individual declines to take a mandatory vaccine, they will be given an opportunity to talk to both medical providers as well as their own chain of command so that they can fully understand the decision that they are making.
“And the other thing I’d say is that our commanders have a range of tools available to them short of using the Uniform Code of Military Justice to again try to get men and women in the department to make the right decision here.”
When questioned about whether or not there would be a strict punishment for service men and women who refuse to get the vaccine, including dishonourable discharge, Kirby noted that troops who refuse to be inoculated may not necessarily face dishonorable discharge.
The press secretary said that there are “a range of options available to commanders short of charges being filed and punishment of any given kind,” should it escalate to a disciplinary procedure.
“And this would be something that commanders would handle themselves. It wouldn’t be some top-down driven set policy for every case across the whole department. This would be something that commanders would be able to decide for themselves,” he continued.
Kirby stressed that the military are still in the beginning stages of rolling out the mandatory vaccine but noted that he expects commanders will “lead with compassion here” and will try to make sure that service members who do not agree to have the vaccine “understand the ramifications of their decision” and are also provided with “as much additional exposure to information and context as possible as they move forward.”
U.S. military department heads were ordered on Aug. 25 to “immediately” start getting their troops vaccinated against COVID-19, just two days after the FDA gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech shot.
The Pentagon has previously said that members can apply for religious or medical exemptions.
Meanwhile, Army veteran Rep. Mark Green’s legislation was added to the fiscal 2022 defense authorisation bill passed by the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
The legislation requires only honorable discharges for anyone who is separated from the military over refusing to be vaccinated.
“As a physician, I’ve weighed the pros and cons of the COVID-19 vaccine and have chosen to get the shot. As a former Army officer, I also understand the need to vaccinate service members on deployment against a highly infectious virus. For years, the military has possessed the authority to compel service members to be vaccinated,” Green said in a statement after the committee vote.
“However, those vaccines underwent years of research with ample longitudinal safety data. In the case of the coronavirus vaccine, that longitudinal data is not yet possible. Therefore, I believe service members who make the personal medical decision to refuse the vaccine, and are subsequently separated from the service for their refusal, should not receive anything other than an honorable discharge for refusing to take the vaccine. Period.”