The U.S. Department of Defense may provide back pay to former service members who were removed for not receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, coming after the Pentagon repealed the mandate, a spokesperson confirmed Friday.
“The Department will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all service members,” Austin wrote, coming about a year and a half after it was implemented. “Vaccination enhances operational readiness and protects the force.”
Commanders can decide on whether to deploy troops who are not vaccinated, the memo said. That includes when COVID-19 vaccination is mandated "for travel to, or entry into, a foreign nation," it added.
"Certainly commanders do have a responsibility to ensure that if they're sending forces to a place that requires a vaccine that that's a situation that will be addressed, you know, on a case-by-case basis," Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters on Thursday. "But you know, we have a responsibility for the health and welfare of our forces. And so, you know, again, depending on the situation and the circumstances, it is incumbent on commanders to ensure that they're doing what they need to do to make sure those forces are ready."
Austin said more than 2 million service members, or 96 percent of the active duty and reserve forces, are fully vaccinated.
In August 2021 and after the Pfizer vaccine was granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, Austin instituted the mandate and said that it was necessary to protect the health of the military force.
He and other defense leaders argued that for decades troops, particularly those deployed overseas, had been required to get as many as 17 different vaccines, including shots for anthrax. No other vaccine mandates were affected by the new rules.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters in December that the Biden administration believes removing the mandate was a "mistake," repeating claims from Austin that the shot makes "sure our troops are prepared and ready for service." President Joe Biden ultimately signed the bill when it passed both chambers of Congress.
Despite those arguments, Congress agreed to rescind the mandate, with opponents reluctantly saying that perhaps it had already succeeded in getting the bulk of the force vaccinated. Some lawmakers have expressed concerns that the mandate and other policy directives have driven down enlistment in recent years.
Those members of Congress argued that ending the mandate would help with recruiting. Defense officials have pushed back by saying that while it may help a bit, a department survey during the first nine months of last year found that a large majority said the mandate did not change the likelihood they would consider enlisting.
Those who were discharged for refusing to obey a lawful order to take the vaccine received either an honorable discharge or a general discharge under honorable conditions. Austin’s memo says that anyone who was discharged can petition their military service to request a change in the “characterization of their discharge” in their personnel records. It does not, however, say what possible corrections could be awarded.