TOPEKA — U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall endorsed Tuesday federal legislation to prohibit the U.S. Department of Defense from issuing a dishonorable discharge to service members who declined a vaccine for COVID-19.
Marshall, the Great Bend Republican who served in the U.S. Army Reserve, said Department of Defense guidance indicated troops who refused a vaccine would face administrative or nonjudicial punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which could include relief of duties or discharge.
“As a physician and veteran who is confident that the vaccine has saved countless lives,” Marshall said, “I believe vaccinating our service members against COVID-19 is an important effort. However, whether or not to receive the vaccine should be a personal choice.”
He said a dishonorable discharge shouldn’t be attached to service members who separated from the military due to personal medical decisions related to the pandemic.
Dishonorably discharged U.S. service members surrender the right to own firearms, access GI Bill education benefits, participate in Veterans Administration home loans and medical programs, and the benefit of military funeral honors.
Joining Marshall in support of the legislation were U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Jim Lankford of Oklahoma and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama. A similar version of the measure has been adopted by the U.S. Armed Services Committee.
Lankford said service members who recovered from COVID-19 or who had medical, religious or personal reasons to oppose the vaccine shouldn’t be subject to a less than honorable or dishonorable discharge.
“Our men and women in uniform have fought to protect the freedoms we enjoy, and it’s right for us to protect their freedom now,” he said.
Cruz said it was insulting to consider discharging servicemen and servicewomen dishonorably for rejecting COVID-19 vaccination in the same way troops convicted of murder, sexual assault and desertion were removed.
“Forcing all service members, including pregnant women and those who have already had COVID-19, to receive the vaccine is just one more example of President Biden and his administration putting politics ahead of science,” Cruz said.
The Department of Defense reported COVID-19 fatalities among military personnel reached 46 as of Sept. 15. The first death occurred in March 2020 and fatalities climbed to 26 in July 2021. A surge in coronavirus deaths began in August in response to spread of the delta variant.
The department said 473 COVID-19 fatalities had been documented among service members, civilian personnel, dependents and contractors. More than 300 of the deaths were among civilian employees of the Department of Defense, according to the Pentagon’s latest update.
More than 1.1 million service members have been fully vaccinated along with more than 314,000 civilians at the defense department.
Troops who received previous religious or medical waivers from vaccines could be excused from the COVID-19 shot. Pregnant women could seek a temporary waiver.
Vaccination deadlines for the various branches: Air Force and Space Force, Nov. 2; Marines and Navy, Nov. 28; Air National Guard, Dec. 2; Army, Dec. 15; and Army National Guard, June 30, 2022.
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