WASHINGTON — More than 2 million service members are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Department of Defense. But the recently-enacted National Defense Authorization Act rescinds the vaccine mandate for troops.
The provision was a part of the $858 billion military spending package that President Joe Biden signed into law.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Pentagon leaders argued that the vaccine mandate was necessary.
"The Secretary [of Defense] has made it clear that this is a lawful order to receive the vaccine," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in September 2021.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) agreed.
"This is not about simply personal rights. It's about, you may have personal rights, but those rights don't extend to being a health hazard for folks that you work with," he told 13News Now in October 2021.
The provision to rescind the vaccine mandate was an 11th-hour surprise driven by Republicans.
"These are people we spend millions of dollars training that they've just been casting aside as though of no use," U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) said during a Nov. 30 news conference on Capitol Hill. "These are valuable people. We need them in our military."
The first federal lawsuit was filed in November 2021 by 35 active-duty SEALs and three reservists, claiming the military infringed upon service members' First Amendment freedoms.
"Our mission is to defend religious liberty for everybody and that includes those still in the Navy and fighting to stay in the Navy, absolutely, and that's what our class action does," Mike Berry, an attorney with First Liberty Institute, said during an interview with 13News Now in September.
In all, more than 8,400 troops have been forced out of the military for refusing to obey the order, according to the Associated Press. It is unclear if they will be reinstated.
According to Defense Department data, there have been more than 453,000 cases of COVID-19 among military members and 96 military deaths related to the virus.