Air Force boots 40 recruits for refusing coronavirus vaccine ahead of mandate deadline

News

Caitlin Doornbos

Stars and Stripes

The Air Force announced 40 recruits have been kicked out of the service for refusing the coronavirus vaccine ahead of the service’s Nov. 2 deadline to get the shots, service spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said Monday.

About 23 of the 40 were in basic training, while the others had completed basic training and were undergoing their technical training when they were separated from the service, Stefanek said. The recruits received entry-level discharges, meaning they may reenlist if they choose to get the vaccine in the future.

Entry-level discharges can be given to troops who have served less than 180 days and typically carry no discharge designations, such as good, bad or other-than-honorable characterizations, according to the service.

The discharges come as the vaccination deadline looms for the Air Force and Space Force. On Tuesday, all active-duty airmen are required to be fully vaccinated or potentially face separation.

About 94.6% of the active-duty force in the Air Force and Space Force were fully vaccinated as of the Air Force’s last update Oct. 26. About 98.2% had received at least one dose of the vaccine. The Pentagon does not consider a person fully vaccinated until two weeks have passed since their final dose.

That means about 1.8% of the active-duty troops in the Air Force and Space Force — or up to about 5,950 airmen and 115 guardians — continue to decline the vaccine. There were 330,678 active-duty troops in the Air Force and 6,434 in the Space Force as of Sept. 30, according to the services.

However, chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Monday said about 97% of active-duty airmen and guardians are fully vaccinated, which would put the number of unvaccinated troops at about 10,000.

Across the services, about 97% of active-duty troops have received at least one dose of the vaccine, though a fraction have submitted exemption requests for religious, medical or other administrative reasons. By service, about 92% of the Marine Corps, 93% of the Army and 99% of the Navy are at least partially vaccinated, according to the services’ latest data.

The Air Force’s active-duty deadline is the earliest of the service branches. Active-duty troops in the Marine Corps and Navy must be vaccinated by Nov. 28, and soldiers have until by Dec. 15, according to the services.

The Tuesday deadline only affects active-duty airmen. Those in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard have until Dec. 2 to become fully vaccinated. While the Air Force does not break down vaccination rates for Guard and Reserve units, about 88.9% of the entire department were fully vaccinated as of Oct. 25.

Civilian employees of the federal government have until Nov. 22 to reach full vaccination status, and contractors have until Dec. 8, according to an executive order signed Sept. 9 by President Joe Biden.

While Air Force officials have said active-duty airmen and guardians who decline the vaccine after Tuesday will be booted from the service, it’s unclear what will happen to those who are partially vaccinated and planning to receive their final shots.

“Military commanders retain the full range of disciplinary options available to them under Article 92 of the [Uniform Code of Military Justice],” Stefanek said, referring to the provision of military law that governs the failure to obey an order.

Penalties for failing to obey an order can include dishonorable discharge, pay forfeiture or up to two years of jail time, according to the UCMJ.

“Our goal is to ensure as many airmen and guardians as possible receive the vaccine. Military commanders have a range of options available to encourage their service members to receive the vaccine,” Stefanek said. “This is about force health protection — not punishment.”

Some who have refused the shots might have submitted requests to exempt themselves from the vaccine mandate for health, religious or other administrative reasons.

The Air Force has declined to say how many requests have been received, but spokeswoman Rose Riley said last week that the service was “working toward providing the total number of exemption approvals” issued.

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