Hayden Robichaux was a lance corporal in the Marine Corps until this past February, when he was separated for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. The mandate for all service members to receive the vaccine may soon be struck down by legislation. Inset photo courtesy of Hayden Robichaux. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kylee Warren.
The military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate may soon disappear due to a last-minute edit of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA.
Members of both parties in both houses of Congress agreed to language that strikes down the mandate in a compromise bill that would make the NDAA law. The agreement came days after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made it clear that his party would not support the NDAA without it.
“Last week, I told the president directly: it’s time to end the COVID vaccine mandate and rehire our service members,” McCarthy said in a press statement on Tuesday, Dec. 6.
COVID-19 immunization cards are distributed to vaccine recipients following their vaccinations Dec. 16, 2020, at Naval Health Clinic Hawaii. US Navy photo by Macy Hinds.
But the Biden administration still needs to sign the NDAA once it passes through Congress, and the White House has yet to indicate whether or not it will let this provision kill the must-pass bill. On Monday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that “discussions are ongoing.”
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday, “We continue to believe that repealing the vaccine mandate is a mistake.”
Kirby, who was the Pentagon’s press secretary until earlier this year, added, “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 was issued by President Joe Biden in August 2021 and went into effect between November 2021 and June 2022, depending on different deadlines for each branch. Though over 90% of active-duty troops have received a COVID-19 vaccine, thousands have refused and been separated. The mandate has also sparked several lawsuits.
Congressman Kevin McCarthy has successfully pushed to include a repeal of the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate in this years NDAA. But will the president sign the bill? U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Olivia G. Ortiz.
Spokespeople for both the Navy and the Air Force told Coffee or Die Magazine on Wednesday that it was policy to not comment on pending legislation. The Army and Marine Corps did not respond to requests for comment.
A federal judge ordered the separations halted recently in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, as the service members requesting religious accommodation pursue a class-action lawsuit over the mandate.
Attorney Mike Berry, who represents some of the plaintiffs in a class action, told Coffee or Die that the repeal isn’t enough.
Lance Corporal Hayden Robichaux was separated from the Marine Corps in February for refusing to get the vaccine. "It was kinda like a dead set answer," he said about his request for a religious exemption. "They just don't care." Photo courtesy of Hayden Robichaux.
“It doesn't do anything to reinstate people who've been separated,” said Berry, who is himself a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Reserves and requested a religious exemption from the mandate. “It doesn't do anything to undo punishment that people have suffered. It does not provide back pay for anybody. It doesn't protect anybody or provide any relief for people who've already been been treated adversely.”
Hayden Robichaux was a lance corporal in the Marine Corps until this past February, when he was separated for refusing the vaccine.
“I had high hopes that when it first came out that you can get a religious exemption for it,” Robichaux told Coffee or Die. “I wasn't ready to get out of the Marine Corps. I signed up to be a Marine and at least do my four years, because of my family.”
Pfizer syringes lie on a vaccination station Aug. 28, 2021 at South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta, Georgia. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Briana Beavers.
Robichaux grew up in a family that was deeply committed to both military service and Christian beliefs. His father, Chad, served eight tours of duty with the Marine Corps and founded the Mighty Oaks Foundation for veterans with post-traumatic stress, where Robichaux now works as donor relations coordinator.
Concerned both about the possible side effects of the vaccine and the role of aborted fetal cells in its development, Robichaux started the process of requesting a religious exemption in October 2021.
“We spoke to a chaplain,” Robichaux said about himself and a friend who put in a request at the same time. “He kind of evaluated us, but that didn't really matter in the long run. It was kinda like a dead set answer, because we both got back the same documents saying that we’re denied. It’s almost like they just had a template ready to go for each one of us.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III arrives at West Point, New York, May 22, 2021. Austin attended the graduation for the US Military Academy at West Point. DoD Photo by US Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders, courtesy of DVIDS.
Department of Defense Inspector General Sean O’Donnell indicated to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in a June memo that the speed at which religious exemptions were denied was “concerning,” showing there is internal dissent within the department about management of the mandate.
“We found a trend of generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment that is required by Federal law and DoD and Military Service policies,” O’Donnell wrote.
Robichaux appealed the denial of his request to the commanding officer of his unit. “That got denied really quick,” he said. “They just don’t care.”
A final appeal to the commandant of the Marine Corps was denied. Robichaux tried to appeal to the secretary of the Navy, but the appeal never made it to Carlos Del Toro’s desk. After five months, right as Robichaux learned he was about to become a father, he was separated from the Marine Corps.
Berry said that the lack of restitution in the NDAA "highlights why it was so important and necessary that we filed the lawsuit and that we got the class-wide injunction that we did. If not for our lawsuit, thousands of people in the military would be out of luck, because they would have already been separated months ago. This provision would not help them. It wouldn't be able to bring them back.”
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Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Committee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay-at-home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!
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