The Pentagon is not currently looking into providing back pay for service members who were fired after refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it was mandated, a spokesperson said Tuesday.
The requirement was put into place by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in August 2021. But the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, passed by Congress in December, included a provision that repealed the vaccine mandate for service members; it did not go so far as to mandate reinstatement or back pay for those impacted by the original order.
The mandate was formally rescinded on Jan. 10; the military stopped discharging troops who refused the vaccine in the interim time period.
Reports surfaced last week that the Pentagon was possibly considering providing back pay, with a spokesperson telling POLITICO the department was “still exploring this and will provide its views on legislation of this nature at the appropriate time and through the appropriate process.”
But Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder on Tuesday said the DOD is “not currently pursuing back pay to service members who were dismissed for refusing to take the COVID vaccination,” adding: “At the time that those orders were refused, it was a lawful order.”
When asked if it was a final decision from the department, Ryder said he was “not going to speculate about what the future might portend.”
The contentious political issue forced more than 8,400 troops out of the military for refusing to obey a lawful order when they declined to get the vaccine. Thousands of others have sought religious and medical exemptions.
But the bulk of the force was vaccinated. Roughly 99% of active-duty troops in the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps had gotten the vaccine, and 98% of the Army. The Guard and Reserve rates are lower, but generally are more than 90%.
The assertion from the Pentagon comes amid increased pressure from Republican lawmakers to provide those discharged service members with back pay, or to reinstate them to their previous positions.
Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., told Fox News Digital the House will add language to next year’s NDAA providing back pay for troops who did not get the COVID-19 vaccine should the Pentagon fail to do so beforehand.
"If the Pentagon does not provide back pay and restore full benefits for those who were discharged and request to be reinstated, we in Congress must act by adding language in the next NDAA to do so,” Waltz, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said in part. “We have an obligation to these service members.”
Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., also introduced legislation this month to reinstate service members discharged over COVID-19 vaccine refusal to be reinstated at their prior level and pay grade.
“While repealing the unconstitutional COVID-19 vaccine mandate in the military was a step in the right direction, we should finish what we started and give every servicemember discharged for exercising his or her right to medical freedom an opportunity to return to the military,” Mast wrote in part.
Former Vice President Mike Pence also called on the Pentagon to both reinstate service members who were fired for not getting a COVID-19 vaccine, as well as to provide them with back pay
“Now that Secretary Austin has implemented what Congress passed into law, lifting the vaccine mandate on members of our armed forces, now I’m calling on the Biden administration and the Pentagon to reinstate every man and woman that was discharged from our armed forces because they refused to take the vaccine, and give them 100% back pay for the time after they were discharged,” Pence said in an interview with The Hill last week.
In addition to ending efforts to discharge troops who refuse the vaccine, Austin in mid-January issued a memo saying those who sought exemptions and were denied will have their records updated and any letters of reprimand will be removed.
Those who were discharged for refusing to obey a lawful order to take the vaccine received either an honorable discharge or a general discharge under honorable conditions. In the memo, Austin said anyone who was discharged can petition their military service to request a change in the “characterization of their discharge” in their personnel records. It did not, however, say what possible corrections could be awarded.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.