By Zachary Stieber
The U.S. Army is telling unvaccinated former soldiers who were kicked out of the military for refusing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine that they can potentially rejoin the force, as the military struggles to draw new recruits.
“Individuals who desire to apply to return to service should contact their local … recruiter,” Brig. Gen. Hope Rampy wrote in a letter sent to former Army personnel.
Brig. Gen. Rampy was alerting former members to new guidance that enables soldiers who were kicked out for not receiving a COVID-19 shot to ask for their military records to be corrected.
Under the U.S. military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, the Army booted 1,903 personnel for not receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Unvaccinated soldiers present risk to the force and jeopardize readiness,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said in 2022 as the first soldiers were discharged.
Multiple military branches have struggled to attract new recruits in recent years.
The Army missed its fiscal year 2023 goal by about 10,000.
In response, officials have implemented changes in recruitment strategy, including targeting college graduates and giving bonuses as high as $50,000. The new letter from Brig. Gen. Rampy, and associated guidance, indicates that the strategy includes trying to bring back soldiers removed for defying the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
The guidance referred to in the letter, dated Nov. 7, says that under Ms. Wormuth’s direction, a number of steps have been taken in recent months, including removing suspensions relating to soldiers who asked for exemptions from the mandate.
Records of soldiers still in the force are being corrected “to remove adverse actions stemming from requests for exemption from vaccination for COVID-19,” the guidance states, adding that “former soldiers who were involuntarily separated for refusal to receive the vaccination can also request correction of their military records to reflect an honorable, voluntary separation from service.”
“We remain proud of the Army’s response to the pandemic and will continue to encourage vaccination against the COVID-19 variants as the surest way to ensure readiness, protect our members and guarantee mission success,” the Army said in the guidance.
It also said that “our nation faces many challenges, and developing and employing the skills and talents of prior service members can benefit individual soldiers and the Army.”
The change in posture comes months after the military reluctantly withdrew its mandate, forced by a bill approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden.
But the bill did not compel any action regarding the former members, such as automatically restoring them with backpay.
“We are not currently pursuing back-pay to service members who were dismissed for refusing to take the COVID vaccination,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters after the mandate was rescinded.
Across all branches, more than 8,000 troops were dismissed for not complying with the mandate. Some saw their requests for religious exemptions denied by form letters, which violated federal law, courts have ruled.
As of November, just 19 of the removed soldiers have returned to the Army, an Army spokesman told The Epoch Times via email. Just a single Air Force member has returned, a spokeswoman told The Epoch Times in an email. The other branches did not return inquiries.
All of the soldiers separated under the mandate received the letters, and that about 210 have requested records corrections, the Army spokesman said.
‘Too Little, Too Late’
Bradley Miller, a former Army lieutenant colonel, was among those who received a letter. He said the effort was not enough.
Giving soldiers a way to get their records corrected “on the surface sounds like it’s a good thing and maybe to some degree it is, but I think most former soldiers, myself included, just kind of feel like it’s just too little, too late,” Mr. Miller told The Epoch Times.
Mr. Miller was relieved of his command in October 2021 and resigned shortly before hitting the 20-year mark, despite missing out on a pension, because he did not want to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I never trusted whether the vaccines would ever be safe or would ever do what they were supposed to do. And as a commander, I certainly never wanted to order my troops, who might also be hesitant, to take the vaccine either,” he told American Family News of his decision.
Mr. Miller is considering requesting a correction to his records but is less certain about applying to rejoin the force.
He said that he thinks the low number of personnel who were removed and have since rejoined stems from the way the members were treated.
“Even if they were to go back in, their careers have been completely derailed,” he said.
Members of Congress said the update was welcome, but decried how the unvaccinated soldiers were punished in the first place.
“We’re all glad to see the Army is reversing its persecution of soldiers who refused to get the COVID vaccine, but that doesn’t take away the damage this caused to our troops,” Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) wrote on X.
“The U.S. Army is sending a letter to troops who were discharged for refusing to take the jab, saying they can now apply to have their reasons for discharge changed,” added Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.). “What about reinstating them at rank and paying them with back pay?”