Ahead of the Senate vote on the National Defense Authorization Act, military members who were discharged for refusing to get vaccinated are speaking out about their struggles since asking the military to honor their religious objections to the mandate.
Lawmakers will vote Thursday on the 2023 NDAA, in which Republicans were able to include a provision that halts the Department of Defense from forcing service members to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
They will also vote on Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s and Republican Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson’s amendment that would reinstate and provide backpay to military members.
Many service members have objected to getting the vaccine on religious grounds and have requested religious exemptions to the vaccine: 9,068 members of the Army, 4,309 members of the Navy, 1,350 members of the Coast Guard, 3,740 members of the Marines, and roughly 11,000 members of the Air Force requested religious exemptions, The Daily Signal has learned.
The military granted very few of these exemption requests: 123 to members of the Army, 65 to members of the Navy, 12 to members of the Coast Guard, 23 to members of Marines, and roughly 200 to members of the Air Force.
In total, 8,424 military members have been discharged, the Department of Defense confirmed to The Daily Signal on Thursday: 1,841 in the Army, 3,717 in the Marines, 1,631 active in the Navy and 401 in the Navy Reserve, and 834 in the Air Force.
The Coast Guard, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, confirmed to The Daily Signal that it has discharged 273 members.
These numbers have sparked heavy concerns about the military’s readiness and the service members’ conscience rights, though others insist that the military has the right to mandate vaccinations and that a service member’s refusal to follow orders should result in punishment.
Many different service members shared the hardships they have endured since requesting religious exemptions or being discharged in testimony sent to Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee.
Former Coast Guard service member Brett Schmitt said he was “crushed” when he was discharged on Sept. 5, 2022, after serving his country for over 11 years. Schmitt, who requested a religious exemption, believes religion trumps “government impingement” on his rights and that the vaccines cannot legally be mandated.
Now Schmitt’s family is financially in “a bad way,” he said—and “the government is trying to break us even more.”
“In the ensuing months my wife and I welcomed baby #6 to our family, born a week and a half after discharge, and we have yet to recover financially from the break,” Schmitt shared. “We are desperately poor currently and the government is trying to recoup 4 years and 3 months of bonus (SRB) totaling over $13K after taking my final paycheck and leave days to recoup even more.”
Logan Pittman, who served in the United States Navy, also shared with Lee that he refused to comply with the military vaccine mandate and was officially separated on March 15, 2022, after requesting a religious exemption immediately when he learned about the mandate on Aug. 28, 2021.
Pittman said he left for deployment in the first week of October, during which time he received a denial of his exemption request, and was sent home from his deployment on March 12, 2022, from Okinawa, Japan, to finish his separation at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.
“No one had to hold a gun to my head for me to raise my right hand to ‘Swear to protect those against enemies foreign and domestic … ‘ but of course I did it voluntarily,” he added. “For me to not get to fulfill that oath, will never sit right with me. It is an unfortunate chain of events, but who knows … Maybe there’s still hope to make things right.”
A female service member who spoke with The Daily Signal anonymously to protect her privacy said she was discharged from the Coast Guard in November 2022 after two years and 10 months of service for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“My bonus is being recouped as a result of my discharge,” she said in testimony shared with Lee’s office. “I sought religious exemption in September 2021 around the time that the vaccine was mandated for us. My exemption was denied in January 2022.”
“I was deemed not fit to sail for deployment in Feb-March of 2022,” she continued. “Later I was able to deploy again for most of the summer but was ultimately separated this November.”
The former Coast Guard member said she was forced to isolate and given a “plethora of negative paperwork” throughout 2021 and 2022, “neglected and mistreated by my unit throughout these quarantines and treated less than in countless situations.”
Because she had refused to get vaccinated, she said, she was denied medical treatment at her base medical facility, forced to stay in “unsanitary quarters for isolation,” and often denied meals when in isolation.
Air Force member Brian Saunders also objected to the vaccine on religious grounds. He shared with The Daily Signal that his religious accommodation was stalled for 12 months as he and his pregnant wife grappled with uncertainties about their future—ultimately choosing to birth their baby at home due to fears about hospital vaccination requirements and masking.
Saunders said he was barred from promotion to the rank of captain and forced to sell his home and move into his parents’ house with no income from the Air Force while still awaiting discharge.
“In summary, we are still being held hostage by the Air Force nearly two years after I submitted my religious accommodation,” Saunders shared with Lee. “The total financial burden resulting from our religious accommodation so far is approximately $40,000. This is devastating for our young family, especially since I may also lose my new job as a deputy due to the Air Force’s failure to discharge me in a timely manner.”
“There is one word that sums up what has been perpetrated against the good men and women who simply reserved their rights afforded to them by the Constitution,” he told The Daily Signal. “Betrayal.”
Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, in a now viral tweet, also called on service members who were discharged over their vaccine refusal to share their stories. The senator has been sharing these stories daily to draw attention to the plight of the service members.
One active-duty Marine, Lt. Col. Scott Duncan, shared in testimony with Paul that his request for a religious exemption was denied twice. Duncan says he is the father of six children and he is only a few months away from retirement after serving in the military for almost 20 years.
Before the mandate, Duncan shared, he was slated to take command of an F-35B squadron. The Marine says he is still on active duty but unable to retire since the United States Marine Corps has placed all officers’ careers on “hold” due to the preliminary injunction.
David Hamski, a former U.S. Army captain and airborne company commander who served in the military for nine years, shared with the senator that he was separated for refusing the vaccine and refusing to order his paratroopers to get vaccinated (Hamski also discovered he had a heart condition after contracting COVID-19).
“I endured numerous attempts of coercion from my senior chain of command, including a Major grabbing my shoulders, physically shaking me and saying, ‘Just get the shot! Don’t tell your wife. This is not the hill to die on,’” Hamski shared.
He said he was removed from company command on Sept. 10, 2021, ordered not to interact with his paratroopers, and ultimately separated from the Army in July 2022.
Many of these members remain hopeful that lawmakers will take steps to rectify their situations—to not only halt the mandate, but to get them reinstated, and with backpay.
“The Department of Defense COVID-19 vaccine mandate has ruined the livelihoods of men and women who have honorably served our country,” senators wrote in November. “While the Department of Defense certainly must make decisions that will bolster military readiness, the effects of the mandate are antithetical to readiness of our force, and the policy must be revoked.”
“The United States simply cannot afford to discharge our brave men and women in uniform and lose the investments we have made into each and every one of them due to an inept bureaucratic policy,” they added. “We respectfully request that the Senate vote to remedy a policy that adversely affects our service members and our national security.”
This story was updated to reflect who introduced the amendment and to include the most current numbers on religious exemptions from the United States Navy.
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