Thousands of unvaccinated service members could still be booted over rescinded COVID-19 policy

Thousands of military service members could still be discharged because they didn’t apply for a COVID-19 vaccination exemption — even though the U.S. Department of Defense rescinded its mandate in January.

Members of the House Armed Services Committee blasted the DOD’s handling of its mandate as 69,000 out of 2 million active service members never received a vaccine, according to data sent to Congress members last week. 

Approximately 53,000 sought an exemption or accommodation, leaving about 16,000 who could be axed for noncompliance with the rescinded vaccine policy, according to data supplied by Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros in response to a letter from Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Jim Banks, R-Ind.

“It’s incredibly divisive and cruel to fire patriotic service members for refusing to comply with a partisan and harmful rule that no longer exists,” Banks told Fox News Digital. “To me, the only explanation is that the Biden administration wants to purge conservative service members from the military.”

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Cisneros’ letter noted that roughly 8,100 service members have already been separated for not complying with the vaccine mandate, though the data did not specify how many of those applied for an exemption.

Cisneros had said in his correspondence with the committee that vaccine refusal on its own wasn’t enough to be discharged if service members “sought an accommodation based on religious, administrative or medical grounds.”

Banks grilled Cisneros during a recent hearing in which he cited a study from The Lancet that found natural immunity against COVID-19 is as effective as vaccination. Noting the novelty of the virus, Cisneros said “natural immunity is not something we believe in for this.”

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Rogers, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, echoed Banks, telling Fox News Digital the Department of Defense “mishandled the COVID-19 vaccine mandate and botched reviewing religious exemptions.”

The chairman added that the House Armed Services Committee will continue to investigate how the mandate affected readiness and recruitment.

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A DOD inspector general report in June found evidence that the military potentially violated the law by rejecting religious accommodation requests without conducting individualized assessments as mandated by federal law and department policies.

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The report also highlighted that the average review time for each request was just 12 minutes, indicating insufficient time to carry out an individualized assessment and fulfill job responsibilities.

The U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, mandated that all incoming cadets receive the COVID-19 vaccine in accordance with Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth’s vaccine directive, which Congress ordered rescinded by Jan. 23.

The Army did not rescind its vaccine requirements until Feb. 24, more than a month past the deadline.

A DOD spokesperson did not respond to Fox News Digital’s request for comment.

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