The Air Force separated 610 Airmen for declining the COVID-19 vaccination during the time it was required, from the fall of 2021 through late 2022, Undersecretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones told the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 28. In all, 40 Airmen resigned and 14 officers retired.
Congress rescinded the COVID-19 vaccination mandate in the Fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, and the services are required to clear the records of unvaccinated service members still in uniform.
Ortiz Jones said 98 percent of the Department of the Air Force’s Total Force was vaccinated. That includes roughly 500,000 Active-duty Air Force and Space Force members, along with those in the Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve. Among Active duty Airmen and Guardians, 99 percent are vaccinated, compared with 94.3 percent for the Air National Guard, and 95.9 percent for the Air Force Reserve.
Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall on Feb. 24 officially halted adverse actions against Airmen and Guardians who declined the vaccine. In a memo to the force, he said personnel records would be changed to remove or redact penalties and negative actions taken solely as a result of their refusal to accept the vaccines.
These changes require no action from the Airmen, he said, so long as the official file contains a request for a waiver. Unvaccinated Airmen who never submitted an accommodation request for exemption from the vaccine must have to initiate the process to have the record considered for review.
“If you are currently serving and submitted an accommodation request, and if the adverse action is tied solely to your refusal of the vaccine, then the Air Force Personnel Center is taking steps now to remove that adverse paperwork from your file,” Ortiz Jones said.
She noted, however, if the refusals coincided with other misconduct, only the vaccine-related actions would be set aside. Discipline for other behavior will not be removed.
“I want to be clear about the caveat,” she said. “If there are aggravating factors, other misconduct, then that’ll have to be reviewed for what may be appropriate.”
If a service member was already separated, that individual must go to the discharge review board for any military record changes.
The rest of the military is following a process similar to the Air Force. Other services’ senior leaders who appeared alongside Ortiz Jones said there are very few former service members they are aware of that want to return to the service now that the vaccine mandate has ended.
Almost all of the Air Force’s COVID-19 vaccine-related separations were general discharges, according to service officials. Those individuals can appeal to the Board for the Correction of Military Records to have their discharges upgraded.
Airmen who wish to rejoin now that the mandate is lifted can reapply. They would have to first appeal to a review board to have their records revised, and then apply through existing recruiting channels.
As part of a class-action lawsuit, a federal court ordered the Air Force to stop kicking Airmen out if they were denied their exemption request or had an unsettled religious exemption in July 2022. Plaintiffs in the suit say 10,000 Airmen and Guardians were negatively impacted by the mandate.
In his memo, Kendall encouraged all members to get vaccinated even without the mandate. The U.S. military still requires other vaccines, and service members must get an exemption to decline them. Unvaccinated status can impact assignments and deployments, especially to countries that place restrictions on unvaccinated individuals.
DOD and the Air Force continue to say being unvaccinated undermines readiness.
“The decision to immunize was the right decision at the time, and in fact, the only choice given the criticality of our mission,” Ortiz Jones said in her opening statement. “Vaccination was essential in allowing us to deploy, rotate our forces to countries that mandated vaccination, and most importantly, keep the men, women, and dependents of the DAF healthy. As they have for decades, the vast majority of our Airmen and Guardians complied with the lawful order to vaccinate.”
Department of the Air Force show that 16 Airmen and Guardians had died from COVID-19 as of October 2022. Air Force civilians and contractors, an older population, were more significantly affected, with about 150 total COVID-19 deaths of that population plus family members.