TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The latest government funding bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023, is expected to pass both chambers of Congress this week and head to the president to sign into law.
Florida Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, and others’ effort to rollback COVID-19 vaccine requirements for U.S. military service members was included in the legislation, seeking to end the vaccine mandate and audit the process of discharges for lack of vaccination from the requirement’s start in August 2021.
While the rollback cleared the vote in the U.S. House, it has not yet been approved in the Senate, though a vote is expected by Friday. Advocates for the proposal, including a retired admiral, say it should also reinstate service members who were discharged over vaccination status. The portion of the legislation containing the removal of the vaccine requirement, called the Defending Religious Accommodations Act, was announced on Dec. 5.
Pushback on vaccine mandates in the military
Sen. Scott, retired Coast Guard Rear Admiral Peter Brown, and other advocates for removing the mandate, said the rollback would allow service members to opt out of the vaccination with exemptions for sincerely held religious beliefs.
Brown, the retired U.S. Coast Guard rear admiral, spoke with WFLA.com, diving into what the mandate has been like for service members, and what it means going forward now that the requirement will end, upon signage by President Joe Biden.
“The president is going to be motivated, I believe, to sign it, because a continuing resolution of funding the government expires this coming Friday, the 16th at midnight,” Brown said. “So there’s a lot of legislative business that needs to be done between now and then to ensure that not only the military but the entire government is funded.”
The vote passed 350 to 80, with large bipartisan support in the House, according to Brown. The U.S. Senate is expected to act on it this week, before sending the legislation to Biden to sign.
“We are looking forward to the NDAA being signed, well passed by the senate, then being signed by the president. That compromise language that was reached last week, that I discussed with Sen. Scott, his colleagues have championed, will order the Secretary of Defense to roll back the mandate,” Brown said.
While the policy was initially set by Sec. of Defense Lloyd Austin III in August of 2021, he said many people may not know that despite separation from the Department of Defense strategy, the USCG typically had some crossover when it comes to health policy.
“The compromise language was reached early last week,” Brown said. “Sen. Scott, Sen. Paul and I had a chance to talk about It briefly last Wednesday.”
While House Democrats approved of the rollback, not all Democratic leaders were pleased with the decision. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre spoke at a briefing after the news came out, saying that congressional Republicans were fighting against health for troops instead of protecting them.
“We believe that it is a mistake, what we saw happen on the NDAA as it relates to the vaccine mandate,” Jean-Pierre said. “Making sure our troops are prepared and ready for service is a priority for President Biden. The vaccination requirement for COVID does just that.” As previously reported, the press secretary would not answer if Biden would veto the NDAA if the rollback remained in the final version.
Process to passage
However, Brown said he remained positive that the rollback would be in the version heading to the president. Additionally, Brown explained some differences in organization for the different armed services and how that could be affected by the vaccine rollback.
“A lot of people may not realize that the Coast Guard actually is not in the Department of Defense, although it is one of the armed forces, it’s in the Department of Homeland Security, but by a variety of interlocking agreements between departments the Coast Guard, and the Army, Military, Sec. of Defense vaccination policy specifically applies to the Coast Guard,” Brown explained. “The same reason the Coast Guard instituted a mandate on the heels of Sec. of Defense Austin’s order, back in august of 2021, I expect that the Coast Guard will rescind the mandate, per the language of the NDAA when the Secretary of Defense does so.”
Brown said he first got involved in this political fight after he heard of seven cadets at the Coast Guard academy were disenrolled and discharged over their lack of COVID vaccination.
“My colleague, Vice Admiral Lee and I are asking the Coast Guard to do the right thing, right now,” Brown said. “Don’t wait for some type of remedy or get well legislation to be approved. Do the right thing, right now, call up those cadets and tell them they can come back to school in January and start similar remedies for those people who have already been discharged.”
“This particular piece is [moving faster]. There’s other ongoing discussions related to an omnibus budget for the rest of the government, and there is still some gap between Republicans and Democrats, on that number, about how much that ought to be for the coming year, but the NDAA is a little bit apart from that right now. The legislative agenda is on track to consider it this week.”
Mandates, exemptions, and discharges
The COVID-19 vaccine mandate for military service members took effect in August 2021. Sec. of Defense Lloyd Austin III required that for readiness purposes, every member be vaccinated against the virus.
Some service members objected on religious grounds, while others were concerned over side effects and physical effects of the vaccine. According to Brown, over 1,000 requests to opt out of the vaccine as a religious accommodation were submitted. Brown said very few were approved.
Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, accommodation requests are, according to Brown, supposed to be reviewed on an individual, case-by-case basis. He said he doesn’t think that’s what happened when it comes to vaccine exemptions in the pandemic.
“It looked like there was basically a blanket denial in place, in some cases an automated denial policy, where pretty much no matter what people put in their religious accommodation request, it was going to be rejected, there was essentially no option in the system for granting their request,” Brown said. “The information we have is that only about 12 out of 1,200 requests were granted in the Coast Guard and those were for people who were already planning on getting out. So it was essentially no cost to the Coast Guard to allow that person to continue on to their discharge date.”
Sen. Scott and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky wrote a recent op-ed in Fox News about the vaccine mandates and military readiness. In the article, the senators say about 3,400 service members have been discharged over their vaccination status.
Of those, Brown said over 1,000 were from USCG. His concern with the discharges expanded beyond simply the number of guardsmen, but also how that would affect the service’s readiness for operation. There are only about 40,000 USCG personnel, and 1,200 were discharged due to vaccination status.
According to Brown, those who were discharged lost access to their military benefits, including some housing assistance and reenlistment bonuses, but more than that, some service members allegedly lost portions of their paychecks for leaving the service before their contracts concluded.
“Some people had been discharged when they would otherwise be potentially retirement eligible, some people had reenlistment bonuses recouped, basically they were getting charged money to get kicked out,” Brown said. “Their last paycheck essentially disappearing because of a debt owed, where the debt was the member not serving the time they were going to serve, where the reason they were not serving that time was because they were getting kicked out. That’s the ultimate in punitive measures.”
Religion and vaccines
Brown said the hesitation or refusal about the COVID-19 vaccines come from multiple worries of service members. While the service members were unconcerned about the 18 other vaccines, including shots for rabies, hepatitis A, rubella, they expressed objections to COVID shots due to use of cells derived from fetuses during development. The mRNA vaccines did not use fetal cells for development, instead using a different technology for production.
“On the religious side, one is the use of fetal, fetal-derived, cells derived from fetuses in development of these vaccines,” Brown said. “The other is the belief that the mRNA technology, that some members believe changes the genetic makeup or genetic output of their cells in a way that contrasts with their belief that they are, or we all are, individually designed by god, with individualized DNA.”
However, the COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, is not the only vaccine taken by military personnel to use what are known as fetal cell lines, for production and development. According to UCLA Health, the cell lines used are not from fetal tissue. Instead, they come from what are known as historic fetal cell line samples, procured in between the 1960s and 1980s. The cell lines were reportedly grown from cells recovered from elective abortions and “are now thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue.”
UCLA Health said the cells used for making the J&J COVID-19 vaccine did not use fetal cells from recent abortions.
As far as the religious ramifications of using the vaccines, UCLA pointed to statements from the Vatican about the morality of receiving a COVID vaccine developed with cell lines from aborted fetuses.
“In such a case [as the COVID-19 pandemic], all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive,” the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith said in a statement to Vatican News.
In addition to religious concerns, Brown also noted the “poorer than advertised efficacy and greater than advertised risk” from the mRNA vaccines, specifically highlighting myocarditis risks. The retired rear admiral said that some of the service members “entering reproductive age” also had expressed concerns over the vaccine’s impact on fertility and starting families.
Brown said it was time to remove the mandate and make the discharged members whole and get them back into service. In terms of additional legislation, while Brown said he was confident the NDAA language would cross over to the Coast Guard, he was hopeful that any potential make whole legislation would also be applied to USCG and that it was included in any resources allocated and policy decisions.
“If the NDAA passes as we expect, the good news is the mandate would go away, the language in the NDAA requires it to be rescinded within 30 days of passage, so that would likely be by the middle of January,” Brown said. However, he remains concerned that some service members are “still under a bit of a threat, and people who have already been discharged, there’s no provision yet for reinstatement, backpay, or other remedies that would make people whole, and restore them to their position in August of 2021, when the mandate came back.”
He said the rollback was a victory, but not a complete victory. Further legislative action would be needed to correct what Brown called a mistake, and to then make people whole to fix it.
“What makes whole is going to look like is going to be different for different people. If someone actually got discharged you’re going to look back at their discharge date and bring them back on, give them their back pay,” Brown said. “For someone who missed a promotion, missed training, missed an educational opportunity, make whole is going to look a little bit different.”
Brown said for members who had not yet been discharged, some of those administrative steps that had been taken against them would also need review.
For members who took the vaccine because it was required but had “medical consequences” from it and was affected by the side effects, remedies would be needed to help them back to readiness, or be made whole for its impacts that potentially prevent them from serving.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Brown said. Part of the legislation in the NDAA relating to the vaccine requirement being rolled back included an audit provision of the exemption process, in terms of how the applications were reviewed and rejected or approved.
WFLA.com has reached out to the USCG for verification on the numbers cited by RADM Brown, reached out to the Department of Defense for comment on the rollback and discharge statuses, and sought comment from U.S. Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) regarding the NDAA provision. We are awaiting response.