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Troops Discharged for Refusing Vaccine May Be Allowed to Rejoin

Approximately 8 thousand troops were discharged during the Coronavirus pandemic because they refused to get a COVID-19 vaccination. In the wake of congressional testimony by the Senior Enlisted Advisors of each branch of the service in late February 2023, many of these troops may be allowed to rejoin their branch of service.

According to some accounts, many discharged for refusing the vaccine want to return. A path to rejoining is possible, but there are some caveats.

One of those caveats? You must have been discharged ONLY for refusing the vaccine. All applications to rejoin are handled on a case-by-case basis.


In 2021, the Secretary of Defense issued a Memorandum for Senior Pentagon Leadership, acknowledging, “Mandatory vaccinations are familiar to all of our Service members, and mission-critical inoculation is almost as old as the U.S. military itself.”

And with that, the Secretary of Defense directed in writing, “the Secretaries of the Military Departments to immediately begin full vaccination of all Armed Forces members under DoD authority on active duty or in the Ready Reserve, including the National Guard, who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.”

But some service members refused to obey the order to receive the vaccination. These service members were discharged from military service for that refusal, like those who refused the anthrax vaccine in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Related: Involuntary Separation Pay

Ending the DoD COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate

The James M. lnhofe National Defense Authorization Act for 2023 rescinds the 2021 mandates that all troops be vaccinated against COVID. This also means all “DoD Component policies, directives, and guidance implementing those vaccination mandates” no longer apply as of January 10, 2023.

In February of 2023, using the same Memorandum for Senior Pentagon Leadership format that announced the DoD mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy had ended, with certain exceptions.

Military members are no longer automatically required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 but must comply with any host nation’s requirements for these vaccinations when serving overseas.

But none of this explains how troops discharged for refusing the vaccine can rejoin. That required senior leadership from each branch of military service to create policies to facilitate allowing these troops to return.

Rejoining the Military After Refusing the COVID-19 Vaccine

The Secretary of Defense issued a memorandum directing all branches of service to rescind COVID-19 vaccination policies. Part of that directive involves addressing issues related to those denied reenlistment or forced out of military service due to COVID-19 vaccine refusal.

Those who wish to rejoin after being separated for vaccine refusal must show that their separation was caused solely by refusing the vaccine.

Those whose service records reflect this may be allowed to rejoin the service as a prior service member. This means working with a Prior Service Recruiter who will have to perform a records review to ensure the service member wasn’t discharged for other reasons as well.

Rejoining the military after being discharged for COVID vaccine refusal means returning to active duty with a “break in service.” But it also means removing all negative actions against a service member for refusing the shots.

No COVID-related “adverse actions” against a servicemember will survive or persist in those troops’ military records.

If you cannot locate a prior service recruiter in your local area, go to the official site for the branch of service you wish to rejoin and search the site for “prior service recruiting”.

Those who wish to rejoin the service but through a different branch (Army to Navy, Navy to Air Force, etc.) should contact that branch of service’s prior recruiting department.



About the author

Editor-in-Chief | + posts

Editor-in-Chief Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter/editor for Air Force Television News and the Pentagon Channel. His freelance work includes contract work for Motorola, VALoans.com, and Credit Karma. He is co-founder of Dim Art House in Springfield, Illinois, and spends his non-writing time as an abstract painter, independent publisher, and occasional filmmaker.