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Should US troops discharged for refusing COVID-19 vaccine be reinstated with back pay?

Staff Sgt. Travis Snyder, left, receives the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine given at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, Dec. 16, 2020, south of Seattle. Congress is set to rescind the mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy for U.S. military members.

Staff Sgt. Travis Snyder, left, receives the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine given at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, Dec. 16, 2020, south of Seattle. Congress is set to rescind the mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy for U.S. military members. (Ted S. Warren, Associated Press)


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SALT LAKE CITY — A compromise to end the Pentagon's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the military as part of the annual defense spending bill drew praise from members of Utah's congressional delegation.

But Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said service members who were discharged for refusing the shots should be reinstated with back pay.

"I am elated that the Defense Department saw the light and also that this is not the right thing to do, perhaps because we had a number of members of the Senate saying we're not going to put up with this," Lee said Monday at a news conference in Washington.

While he called that "great news," he said "I do think we have to worry about those who have already been fired." He said the government should reinstate with back pay members of the Armed Forces who were dismissed for not receiving the vaccine.

Lee is skeptical about the Defense Department assurances that service members who were let go for not getting the vaccine will be dealt with fairly moving forward. He cited the example of the military seeking $21,000 from a discharged Marine for not serving the amount of time to which he had agreed. Lee said he's not willing to advance the defense spending bill without addressing that issue.

"We need to deal with the issue now rather than on the basis of some prospective promise that they'll treat fairly those whom they've treated most unfairly with the policy," he said.

In August 2021, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin directed that all troops get the vaccine or face potential expulsion from the military. Thousands of active duty service members have been dismissed since then for refusing to get the shots.

Defense Department data shows 3,717 Marines, 1,816 soldiers and 2,064 sailors have been discharged for refusing to get vaccinated, Reuters reported.

"There's no doubt this decision put our national security at risk. The end of this mandate is a win for America," Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, a former Air Force pilot, said in a tweet.

The White House said on Wednesday that ending the vaccine mandate for U.S. troops isn't a good idea. President Joe Biden, Austin and military leaders have strongly supported the policy as necessary to safeguard the health and readiness of the U.S. armed forces, according to Reuters.

"We continue to believe that repealing the vaccine mandate is a mistake," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters. "Republicans in Congress have obviously decided that they'd rather fight against the health and well-being of those troops, rather than protecting them."

The mandate would be rescinded as part of a compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets defense policy for the Pentagon. The bill is expected to pass the Senate and House this month before heading to the president's desk.

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Dennis Romboy
Dennis Romboy is an editor and reporter for the Deseret News. He has covered a variety of beats over the years, including state and local government, social issues and courts. A Utah native, Romboy earned a degree in journalism from the University of Utah. He enjoys cycling, snowboarding and running.

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