The Pentagon on Tuesday formally rescinded its COVID-19 vaccination mandate, dropping the shot’s requirement across the U.S. military over a year after it was first put in place, according to a new memo signed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The memo was expected after the annual defense policy bill, signed into law by President Biden on Dec. 23, gave the Defense Department 30 days to pull the mandate.
Even with the requirement gone, however, the Defense Department “will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all service members,” Austin said in the memo. “Vaccination enhances operational readiness and protects the force.”
Austin on Aug. 24, 2021, first issued a mandate requiring coronavirus vaccinations for all service members — including those in the National Guard and Reserve — with those who did not comply facing various levels of punishment. Those included loss of days individuals accrued toward retirement, loss of pay or even dismissal from the ranks in a move known as involuntary separation.
But the rule received heavy pushback from Republican lawmakers and was the subject of several lawsuits. It was eventually dismantled after a rescission requirement was included in the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act — a major concession by Democrats to help pass the sweeping legislation before the end of 2022.
Ahead of the memo’s release, the U.S. military had stopped all related punishments for refusing the shot, including discharging troops from the service.
In the document, Austin still argued that the vaccine mandate is meant to ensure force readiness and is critical to the health and safety of the force, giving commanders the reins in deciding whether or not to deploy troops who are not vaccinated.
“All commanders have the responsibility and authority to preserve the Department’s compelling interests in mission accomplishment,” he wrote.
Leaders are also able “to consider, as appropriate, the individual immunization status of personnel in making deployment, assignment, and other operational decisions, including when vaccination is required from travel to, or entry into, a foreign nation,” Austin added.
As for the thousands of active-duty service members who were discharged for refusing the shots, they will not be reinstated.