Air Force discharges 27 over COVID vaccine refusal

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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a meeting with Lithuania’s Minister of Defense Arvydas Anusauskas at the Pentagon in Washington, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Air Force has discharged 27 people for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, making them what officials believe are the first service members to be removed for disobeying the mandate to get the shots.

The Air Force gave its forces until Nov. 2 to get the vaccine, and thousands have either refused or sought an exemption. Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said Monday that these are the first airmen to be administratively discharged for reasons involving the vaccine.

She said all of them were in their first term of enlistment, so they were younger, lower-ranking personnel. And while the Air Force does not disclose what type of discharge a service member gets, legislation working its way through Congress limits the military to giving troops in vaccine refusal cases an honorable discharge or general discharge under honorable conditions.

The Pentagon earlier this year required the vaccine for all members of the military, including active duty, National Guard and the Reserves. Each of the services set its own deadlines and procedures for the mandate, and the Air Force set the earliest deadline. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said the vaccine is critical to maintaining the health of the force and its ability to respond to a national security crisis.

None of the 27 airmen sought any type of exemption, medical, administrative or religious, Stefanek said. Several officials from the other services said they believe that so far only the Air Force has gotten this far along in the process and discharged people over the vaccine refusal.

As a result, they were formally removed from service for failure to obey an order. Stefanek said it is also possible that some had other infractions on their records, but all had the vaccine refusal as one of the elements of their discharge.

It is not unusual for members of the military to be thrown out of the service for disobeying an order— discipline is a key tenet of the armed services. As a comparison, Stefanek said that in the first three quarters of 2021, about 1,800 airmen were discharged for failure to follow orders.

According to the latest Air Force data, more than 1,000 airmen have refused the shot and more than 4,700 are seeking a religious exemption. As of last week, a bit more than 97% of the active duty Air Force had gotten at least one shot.

Members of the Navy and the Marine Corps had until Nov. 28 to get the shots and their Reserve members have until Dec. 28. Army active duty soldiers have until Wednesday, and members of the Army National Guard and the Reserves have the most time to be vaccinated, with a deadline of next June 30.

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