Fact check: Biden can’t dishonorably discharge troops for refusing COVID-19 vaccine

Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden delivers remarks on Covid-19 at The Queen theater on October 23, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

The claim: President Joe Biden ordered dishonorable discharges for 46% of troops refusing the COVID-19 vaccine

 

USA Today

 

A widespread claim on social media suggests U.S. service members who refuse to comply with the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate may soon face reprimand courtesy of President Joe Biden.

“Biden Orders Dishonorable Discharge for 46% of Troops Who Refuse Vaccine,” reads text in a Sept. 29 Instagram post. Another version of the post received more than 5,000 likes in five days before it was deleted.

It’s a screenshot of a now-deleted Sept. 23 article from blogger Sandra Rose.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in an Aug. 24 memo that COVID-19 vaccinations would be mandatory for service members, writing that the country needs a “healthy and ready force.” Four senators responded by introducing a bill that would prohibit the Department of Defense from dishonorably discharging service members who refuse vaccination.

The White House said in a statement that it “strongly opposes” the bill. But it did not threaten dishonorable discharges for service members who haven’t received the shot, as other independent fact-checking organizations have reported.

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“The president has absolutely no authority to order a service member dishonorably discharged,” Richard Rosen, director of the Center for Military Law and Policy at Texas Tech University, told USA TODAY in an email.

Rose told USA TODAY she is “not a trained journalist” and that readers view her blog for “entertainment and gossip,” not news. She declined to comment further.

USA TODAY reached out to the Instagram user who shared the claim for comment.

Biden can’t order dishonorable discharges, experts say

The Biden administration hasn’t proposed dishonorably discharging service members who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine. But even if it did, experts say the president doesn’t have that authority.

Rosen said only a general court-martial, the military’s highest level trial court, can sentence service members to dishonorable discharge. If a service member is found guilty in a trial, the court-martial is still not obligated to dishonorably discharge them.

Commanding General of Fort Gordon and Cyber Center of Excellence Paul Stanton stops by a mass vaccination event at Eisenhower Medical Center on Friday morning, Oct. 1, 2021. All active duty military have to get vaccinated by Dec. 15, 2021.
Commanding General of Fort Gordon and Cyber Center of Excellence Paul Stanton stops by a mass vaccination event at Eisenhower Medical Center on Friday morning, Oct. 1, 2021. All active duty military have to get vaccinated by Dec. 15, 2021.

Dwight Stirling, CEO of the Center for Law and Military Policy think tank, said in an email that a service member’s refusal to get vaccinated would likely result in “adverse administrative action.” That could include: a written reprimand, a derogatory comment in a performance evaluation, a demotion or – “in the most extreme instances” – an involuntary discharge.

There are five types of discharge a service member can receive upon separation from the military, Stirling said: honorable, general, other-than-honorable, bad conduct and dishonorable. The last two can only be issued via conviction by a court-martial.

Stirling said while it’s not impossible for a service member to face a court-martial for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s unlikely.

“In the unlikely event that a service member is involuntarily discharged via administrative action for refusal to take the vaccine, he would most (likely) receive one of the first three types of discharge, most likely an other-than-honorable,” Stirling said. “An other-than-honorable discharge, while not something any service member wants as it is analogous to being fired, is a far cry from a dishonorable discharge, which is analogous to a felony conviction.”

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Lindsay Cohn, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, agreed it is unlikely troops would be court-martialed for refusing the vaccine, unless there were “exacerbating circumstances” – like a service member trying to convince others to disobey.

“The military tends to prefer to resolve issues at the lowest effective level, and will elevate to court-martial only if they have no other choice,” Cohn said in an email. “Could the president order them to court-martial everyone who refused the vaccine? Yes, but there is no good reason to do so.”

A Pentagon spokesperson told USA TODAY in an emailed statement that the claim in the social media posts is false. USA TODAY reached out to the White House for comment.

Service members still have time to get vaccinated

Despite the Defense Department’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, service members still have at least a few weeks to receive their first shot.

In mid-September, the Army released a service-wide directive on vaccine requirements. Active-duty troops have until Dec. 15 to get the shot, while soldiers in the Army National Guard and Reserve have until June 30, 2022.

Meanwhile, Military.com reported Air Force service members must be vaccinated by Nov. 2, while Air National Guard members must be vaccinated by Dec. 2. Marines and sailors have until Nov. 28, while reserve component service members have until Dec. 28 to get the shots.

Marine Corps Capt. Andrew Wood told USA TODAY that, as of Oct. 2, there had been no Marines court-martialed for failing to get fully vaccinated.

“Marines who refuse the vaccine today may choose to be vaccinated tomorrow,” he said in an email. “Every effort is made to provide service members with accurate information regarding the vaccine and Marines are encouraged to discuss any hesitancy they may have with qualified medical providers.”

Service members can seek exemptions for a number of reasons, including religious objections and health issues. Those exemptions can be temporary or permanent, the Associated Press reported.

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Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll, chief of media relations for the Coast Guard, said the Coast Guard was not directed to dishonorably discharge members who refuse to take the vaccine. However, it is considering “a number of administrative and disciplinary options” for those who refuse the shot.

About 22% of service members unvaccinated

Rose’s blog post claims “46% of troops” – or about 600,000 active-duty service members – have declined to get the the COVID-19 vaccine. But those numbers aren’t quite right.

According to June data from the Defense Department, there are about 2.15 million members of the U.S. military. That includes 1.38 million active-duty service members and 770,000 in the National Guard and reserves.

The Pentagon’s COVID-19 data shows about 1.3 million service members were fully vaccinated as of Sept. 30, with an additional 380,197 who had received one shot. That means about 60% of troops were fully vaccinated and about 78% were at least half vaccinated.

Bradley Sharp, of Saratoga, New York, gets the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from registered nurse Stephanie Wagner in New York.
Bradley Sharp, of Saratoga, New York, gets the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from registered nurse Stephanie Wagner in New York.

About 22% of service members have not been vaccinated at all – not 46%, as the post claims.

Lt. Cdr. Patricia Kreuzberger of the Navy said that, as of Oct. 6, 84% of Navy service members were fully immunized and 94% had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

The Army declined to comment for this fact check. USA TODAY reached out to the two other military branches for comment.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that Biden ordered dishonorable discharges for troops refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. The Biden administration did not order the Pentagon to dishonorably discharge unvaccinated troops, and the president doesn’t have the authority to do so.

Fewer than 46% of U.S. troops are unvaccinated. Service members have at least a few weeks to get their shots, and if they don’t, experts say involuntary discharges are unlikely.

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