After the official repeal of the Covid-19 vaccine mandate for US service members, data from the military branches reveals that only 43 out of over 8,000 discharged personnel have expressed interest in rejoining, eight months later.
A significant argument among Republicans was that the vaccine mandate had negative implications for military recruitment and retention. This perspective played a role in the decision to rescind the vaccine requirement, which had been in place for 15 months, from August 2021 to January 2023, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. This reversal marked a noteworthy event in US military history.
Since the repeal, the numbers for rejoining are as follows: 19 soldiers for the Army and 12 for the Marines. The figures are even lower for the Air Force (one) and the Navy (two), according to service representatives.
Despite Republican concerns about the vaccine mandate affecting retention, the Defense Department reports that all military services exceeded their retention targets for the first 10 months of the fiscal year 2023, starting on October 1, 2022. This achievement stands out amid ongoing challenges in recruiting new members.
J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, characterized these numbers as “minuscule” and expressed hope that it would put the matter to rest.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin mandated the vaccine following approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Some Republican lawmakers opposed this, although the Covid-19 vaccine was just one of more than 15 vaccines required by the Defense Department.
Senator Tommy Tuberville, a Republican from Alabama, argued that the vaccine mandate had negatively impacted readiness and weakened the force’s ranks. He contended that discharging thousands of service members also harmed recruitment and retention.
In an attempt to reinstate service members “wrongfully discharged” over the vaccine mandate, Senators Ted Cruz from Texas and Dan Bishop from North Carolina introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act in July.
According to Morrison, there was insufficient evidence to suggest that the mandate was hindering recruitment or retention. He acknowledged some discontent but emphasized that military personnel undergo various medical measures as part of their service.
Months after the repeal of the vaccine mandate, only a fraction of those discharged have sought to return. Experts speculated that younger troops may have pursued alternative career paths, while older service members might have viewed this as an opportunity to hasten retirement.
Kate Kuzminski, director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, suggested that for some service members, refusing the vaccine mandate may have been a way to exit the military when they lacked other options to break their commitment. Additionally, service members with longer tenures might have found it challenging to explain a resume gap to a promotion board, influencing their decision not to rejoin.
Kuzminski predicts that this number is unlikely to see significant growth, with perhaps only a few individuals expressing interest in rejoining in the future.