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Despite reversal, discharged military members still feel impact of COVID vaccine mandate

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Federal COVID-era vaccine policies hurt U.S. service members, according to experts testifying at a House Oversight Hearing Thursday examining the mandates.

The Pentagon announced in January of this year that it would lift its COVID vaccine mandate but not before the vast majority of U.S. service members already were forced into vaccination. Those who refused were usually denied their exemption request and often discharged.

Danielle Runyan, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, a group that has represented U.S. service members in lawsuits fighting for exemptions, testified at the hearing saying that 1,417,800 service members were forced into vaccination, many of whom experienced side effects like heart problems.

“While many Americans may have largely moved beyond the detrimental impacts of the COVID-19 vaccine mandates, one of our nation’s greatest assets – our military service members – are still suffering the consequences,” she said.

Service members saw victory in the courts when challenging the mandate, such as a group of Air Force members and a group of Navy SEALs who saw legal victories before the Pentagon lifted the mandate altogether.

The Pentagon mandate was highly controversial, especially as more data came out showing the vaccine was not as effective as initially billed and had serious side effects for many.

The Pentagon only lifted the mandate after Congress required it in a military funding bill passed in December of last year.

“After nearly 40 total lawsuits were filed by service members against the DoD and their respective individual armed services and secretaries, those who sought a religious accommodation from their respective branch of service are now one to three years behind their peers as a result of being removed from their duties,” Runyan said in her written testimony.

“As a result, many will be unable to promote and are faced with the future prospect of losing their careers,” she added.

Runyan argued this came at a significant national security and taxpayer cost.

“Considering a total of 19,460 service members remained unvaccinated as of October 4, 2022, this means we could lose millions in training costs, and hundreds of thousands of years of invaluable institutional knowledge,” she said. “At a time when young Americans have no desire to join the military and military members are telling their children not to join the military, we should consider this a significant national security crisis.”

Though some lawmakers have fought to have those discharged men and women reinstated, that has not happened so far.

Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic Chairman Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, who is a physician, pointed to a friend at the Department of Defense hurt by the mandate.

“Further, not only did these mandates damage Americans’ trust in public health and in vaccines and cause people to lose their jobs, they also negatively affected our military,” he said. “A good friend of mine, a physician no less, battling breast cancer was unfairly harmed by the Department of Defense’s vaccine mandate. Her oncologist advised against the vaccine for medical concerns.”

Wenstrup said at the hearing that his friend applied for an exception but was denied, one of thousands of U.S. service members who received the same treatment.

“While the review board voted to retain her in the Navy, they also substantiated that she committed misconduct for refusing the vaccine,” Wenstrup said.

U.S. military branches have struggled to meet recruitment goals recently. Wenstrup argued the vaccine mandate played a role.

“Besides what may be right or wrong in this case, our military recruitment and retention has been negatively affected,” he said.

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