By Bethany Blankley [The Center Square contributor] –
Military leaders will testify on Tuesday before the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee about the impact of the Department of Defense’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate on DOD employees and military service members.
DOD Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr., Under Secretary and Chief Management Officer of the Army Gabe Camarillo, Under Secretary and Chief Operating Officer and Chief Management Officer of the Navy Erik Raven, and Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones are scheduled to testify Tuesday afternoon.
The hearing is being held after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had until Feb. 21 to provide information to the committee requested by Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Mike Rogers, R-AL, and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Military Personnel Jim Banks, R-IN.
After Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act requiring the DOD to end the COVID-19 vaccine mandate and President Joe Biden signed it into law last December, Rogers and Banks sent Austin a letter requesting that he provide them with his plan to implement the statutory requirement. They received a four-sentence reply one month later, which didn’t respond to their question. The DOD also continued to ignore committee staff repeatedly asking “for answers to many COVID-19 rescission questions critically important to the retention and recruitment of men and women in each of the armed services,” the congressmen said.
As a result, they sent another letter on Feb. 8, requesting Austin provide answers to 14 questions by Feb. 21 ahead of the hearing scheduled for Feb. 28.
“We write to express our concern over the lack of clarity provided to the Armed Forces and to the American people related to your memorandum announcing” Austin’s mandate rescission, they wrote. “While we acknowledge and appreciate your rescission memorandum writ large, many questions remain and have gone unanswered regarding the implementation of the rescission.”
They also emphasized, “Please note, many of the questions or requests for information presented above have gone unanswered for weeks, if not months. The Department and the Biden Administration must no longer refuse to respond to requests for information from this Committee.”
Subcommittee members will address back pay and lost benefits to service members who were punished for refusing to comply with what they argued was an unlawful order requiring them to take an experimental drug or be discharged, and who claimed the DOD COVID-19 vaccine mandate violated their sincerely held religious beliefs and their religious accommodation requests (RARs) were denied.
Subcommittee members requested Austin and witnesses answer questions about a range of issues including how many service members were separated because of the mandate, how many have been required to pay back signing or re-enlistment bonuses to their respective branches, the average amount service members are being required to repay, and the amount that’s already been repaid. They will also address whether DOD policy still requires service members to repay bonuses, how many service members who were forced out have been reinstated, and what military branches’ plans are to reinstate separated service members who wish to return.
Because the NDAA only required the DOD to rescind its mandate, many other concerns remain, which is also why the nonprofit religious freedom legal aid organization, Liberty Counsel, isn’t backing down from its lawsuits representing military service members whose RARs were denied.
One former Marine and Liberty Counsel client was required to pay $17,878.23, the remaining balance of a bonus he was given for reenlisting, after he also lost his last paycheck after his RAR was denied. He isn’t the only one facing hardship after being discharged for refusing to take the vaccine. Nearly all RARs were denied across all military branches and service members faced “cruel and unusual punishment,” demotion and dishonorable discharge, according to briefs filed with the court.
To address ongoing problems in the military associated with the mandate, Republicans in Congress recently filed bills to require the DOD to reinstate service members separated solely for COVID-19 vaccine status who want to return, credit their retirement pay, restore their rank, and compensate them for pay and benefits lost due to demotions, among other measures. In the meantime, Congress is holding hearings and lawsuits are continuing.
About the Author: Bethany Blankley is a writer at the Center Square, Patheos/Hedgerow, political analyst and former press secretary at Capitol Hill / NY / WDC. Follow Bethany on Twitter @BethanyBlankley.