“We have rescinded the mandate,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters during a briefing.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a Biden appointee, imposed the mandate for all troops in August 2021, saying it was necessary to protect military readiness. The military had kept the mandate, which was for a primary series of a vaccine, in place even as the initial shots have proven increasingly less effective against infection and severe illness.
Even some of the original backers of the requirement, such as House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), said the mandate no longer made sense in light of such developments, and Congress inserted a provision into the 2023 defense funding bill that required Austin to rescind the mandate within 30 days of its enactment.
President Joe Biden signed the bill on Dec. 23, 2022. That same day, the Pentagon said it was halting all actions related to the mandate but that it had not yet withdrawn it.
Ryder told reporters Thursday that the military is in the process of developing “further guidance” on vaccines for the force after the withdrawal of the vaccination requirements.
“While that process takes place, we paused all actions related to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. So, we’ll be sure to keep members of the force, we’ll keep you, and keep the public updated, as we have new information available to provide,” Ryder said.
“I will say that we will continue to encourage all of our service members, civilian employees, and our contractor personnel to get vaccinated and boosted to ensure the readiness of our force. And as we’ve said, as I’ve said, the health and readiness of our force will continue to be crucial to our ability to defend the nation,” he added.
As of late 2022, nearly 8,500 troops had been discharged for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
The military has notoriously issued mass rejections for religious requests for exemptions to the mandate, triggering multiple court challenges. Judges had blocked three of the four branches from discharging most members seeking religious exemptions due to the treatment, which the judges said violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Just 0.5 percent of the religious accommodation requests have been approved by the Marines, followed by 1 percent for the Navy, 2.3 percent for the Air Force, and 6 percent for the Army. Thousands of requests were still not adjudicated before the mandate was withdrawn.
Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel, which is representing members in some of the cases, celebrated the withdrawal of the mandate but said that the legal group would continue pursuing the litigation.
“While we are pleased that Joe Biden’s unlawful and abusive COVID shot mandate will be rescinded, this begrudging reversal under pressure by Congress is not enough,” Staver said in a statement.
He pointed to a Pentagon memorandum (pdf) that stated service members who applied for religious accommodation would have any adverse action taken in response remain in their files.
“The Department of Defense and the military branches have taken the position that any service member who requested a religious accommodation was disrupting good order and discipline. Astoundingly, those who defend the Constitution and the laws of the land are considered insubordinate when they request that the laws for which they pledge their lives be upheld. This is the twisted world under the Biden administration,” Staver said.
“Our legal case will continue because without the injunctions, service members will continue to face retaliation for requesting a religious accommodation. Service members who have been loyal to the country and faithful to their religious convictions have suffered greatly under this mandate, and we will continue to seek justice for them,” he said.
Applies to National Guard?
The Army has taken the position that the defense funding bill does not apply to the National Guard, according to a recent memorandum.
Austin’s original mandate was for all troops, but he issued a second, supplemental directive in November 2021 that made clear all members of the National Guard must be vaccinated by deadlines set by the Army or Air Force or they would be unable to participate in drills, training, and other duty.
Austin also said that the Pentagon could not fund duties performed by Guard members who did not get vaccinated.
The Army’s memo says that the funding bill’s forced withdrawal of the mandate “does not address” the latter directive “for members of the national guard and ready reserve.”
It ordered commanders to keep adhering to the directive until it is “superseded or rescinded” by Austin.
Ryder told reporters it was his understanding that the withdrawal of the mandate applied to the entire force, including the Guard.
“But let us go back and we’ll get your clarification on that,” he said.
The Pentagon did not return requests for comment.
An Army spokesperson told The Epoch Times via email this week, “While the Department of Defense is developing further guidance, the Army is suspending the processing and initiation of involuntary separations based solely on a Soldier’s refusal to comply with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.” The spokesperson declined to say whether it was changing its position as outlined in the memo.