By J.M. Phelps
Service members who received general discharges when separated from the military for their refusal to obey the vaccine mandate say their transition to civilian life has been hampered because they were not given honorable discharges.
The majority of service members kicked out over their refusal to get vaccinated received general discharges. With a general discharge, service members lose all educational benefits, reemployment rights, and civil service retirement credit.
Hayden Robichaux, donor relations coordinator for the Mighty Oaks Foundation, is one such service member. He had to build a career in the Marine Corps. He spent his initial two years serving as the military equivalent of a firefighter. But life as a Marine was interrupted by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s announcement of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in August 2021, he told The Epoch Times.
Robichaux refused the vaccine and sought religious exemption.
“But it seemed like everybody who sought religious exemption was denied,” he said. Months later, a leaked June 2021 memo by the Pentagon watchdog revealed the department may have been violating standards in its process of denying religious exemption requests for the COVID-19 vaccine.
In addition to his religious conviction against the vaccine, he took objection to the fact that the only vaccines offered to service members at the time were labeled as authorized for emergency use, rather than having full FDA approval. This argument stems from the wording of the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate, which covers “COVID-19 vaccines that receive full licensure from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in accordance with FDA-approved labeling and guidance.” Robichaux and others believe that this means the mandate did not apply to any vaccines issued under emergency use authorization (EUA), such as the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
They argue that the military mainly offered service members EUA Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, rather than the FDA-approved Cominarty vaccine, and thus could not compel personnel to take them. They also argued that a Pentagon policy that says the Cominarty and EUA Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are interchangeable was illegal.
“With each denial,” Robichaux said, “I kept putting in appeals and each was denied; they were brushed off.” As he continued to refuse the vaccine, he said his leadership became “pissed.” In October 2021, he was given 10 days to get the jab. He soon faced the threat of Article 15, a form of nonjudicial punishment that can be imposed by a commander, that would “put a stain” on his career.
“Because of this,” he said, “I almost changed my mind, telling them that I was going to get it.” Members of his immediate family have collectively served in the military for over 80 years since the Vietnam War. “And I wanted to continue the legacy that we have under our name,” he said.
In the end, Robichaux maintained his religious objection to the vaccine and did not take it. Not only did he receive an Article 15, but he was also denied a promotion to corporal. While he admits he may have disobeyed the command to take the vaccine, he said, “I don’t believe it was a lawful command, as I should have never been forced to take an EUA product.”
Robichaux was discharged from the Marine Corps in February 2022. “My commanding officer recommended me for an honorable discharge, but once it went up the chain of command, it came back as a general discharge,” he said. His discharge was characterized as being connected to the commission of a serious offense. Domestic battery, murder, rape, terrorism, and drug use are considered typical commissions of a serious offense.
Since leaving the Marine Corps, he said, “I’ve only met one person that received an honorable discharge.” This, he said, is concerning when one considers the thousands of service members who were separated from the military. One day, Robichaux would like to have his discharge upgraded.
More of the Same
The Epoch Times also spoke to Private First Class Derrick Wynne, who joined the Army in July 2020. Nearly two years later, he was discharged from service for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine once mandated by Defense Secretary Austin.
Wynne described himself as a “hard refusal,” as he didn’t apply for an exemption. He refused because “they were offering vaccines issued under emergency use authorization,” which he considered as legally distinct from the fully FDA-approved vaccines service members were mandated to take.
In November 2021, for refusing to get the jab, he received a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand, an administrative letter of reprimand placed on his service record. In addition, he was also told by several people in leadership and many of his peers that “they were going to make my life hell for refusing the vaccine.”
At this time, Wynne was informed that he would be discharged for refusing to take the vaccine.
“When they finally kicked me out on June 28, 2022, it began as a long, drawn-out process, but when it finally happened, I was only given a two-week notice,” Wynne said. “Many of the programs put in place to aid me in a healthy, successful transition to civilian life were pushed to the side.”
“It was a general discharge, labeled under the violation of a serious offense,” Wynne said. “To anyone who doesn’t know the whole story,” he said, “I sound like I was the one who knowingly broke the law.” But he argued that it was the military that was offering an illegal vaccine by only providing vaccines issued under EUA.
“After skimming through my chapter (administrative separation) packet four or five times before speaking with Trial Defense Services, I noticed that there was no option for an honorable discharge.” When he mentioned this to his legal counsel, he also “made a note in the packet for brigade legal to, at least, add the option for an honorable discharge.”
Brigade legal told him that once his commanding officer gave his recommendation, they would add the option for an honorable discharge before sending it up to the next level of decision. To his surprise, he said, “After my Commander gave his recommendation for an honorable discharge, once it went up the chain of command, there was no option for it.”
When he realized there was no chance for an honorable discharge, Wynne said he was not surprised due to what he described as the department’s recent history of “shady coercion tactics.” He said that “at the time, the military was doing everything they could to paint us [vaccine refuses] as criminals who were knowingly disobeying ‘lawful’ orders, without even taking the time to hear out our legitimate grievances.” For Wynne, “There was a blatant heavy hand on the scale, coming from the top down.”
The Epoch Times spoke to other service members who agree with Wynne. Some of them are being processed out of the military, today, for disobeying a “lawful” order mandated nearly two years ago. Most of them are receiving general discharges. The vaccine mandate was officially rescinded in January, but this did not affect the thousands of service members who had already been discharged over the vaccine.
Demand for Congressional Action
Once he was forced to leave the Army, Wynne’s reason for separation was labeled, like Robichaux, as a “misconduct (serious offense),” making subsequent job interviews more difficult, he said.
“The lack of an honorable characterization ripples outwards and is affecting thousands of us [service members] as a whole—not just from a bureaucratic perspective, but from a moral, principled aspect as well,” he said.
“I lost the education benefits I earned through my service, which would come in handy during my new career search,” he said. Within two months of being discharged, Wynne appealed the Army’s decision to the Army Discharge Review Board.
“Nearly nine months have gone by, and I’ve heard nothing,” he said. “I know Congress has the power to put in an inquiry and help soldiers like myself.”
Over the course of the last several months, wanting to address the issue of FDA-approved vaccines versus those made available through Emergency Use Authorization, Wynne has reached out to multiple congressmen to no avail.
“I was passed around from one elected official to another for months, and no one wanted to do anything to get answers to my questions,” Wynne said. “Every time a politician refuses to help me,” he said, “I feel like I’m being told: you’re a piece of trash; you should have gotten the vaccine.”
In April 2022, Wynne was put in contact with Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Tex.) office. Although he remains frustrated about the lack of action in holding the Department of Defense (DOD) to account for the vaccine mandate, Wynne became aware of the Senator’s effort to ensure that those discharged under a General discharge could be designated as Honorably discharged through the AMERICANS Act.
Sen. Cruz and 18 original cosponsors introduced the Allowing Military Exemptions, Recognizing Individual Concerns About New Shots (AMERICANS) Act of 2023 (S.29) in January. The bill would require the department to offer reinstatement to service members who were separated for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine.
For Wynne, Robichaux, and the multitude of other service members like them, it also states “any administrative discharge of a member on the sole basis of a failure to receive a COVID-19 vaccine must be categorized as an honorable discharge, and DOD is prohibited from taking any adverse action against such a member for that reason.”
A spokesperson for Cruz told The Epoch Times the senator is fighting for passage of his AMERICANS Act [to] bring justice to servicemembers terminated or otherwise punished because of their COVID-19 vaccine status.”
“He is also fighting for them legislatively, authoring the statutory language to ban the Department of Defense’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which became law in December 2022,” the spokesperson said.
The senator “has taken the lead in calling out the Biden administration for COVID-19 overreach and fighting to protect Texas servicemembers from vaccine mandates,” the spokesperson added.
Marine Corps and Department of the Army officials did not return requests for comment from The Epoch Times.