In the first move by the armed services to remove troops on active duty for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, the U.S. Air Force has discharged 27 active-duty troops.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said on Monday that these 27 are the first airmen to be administratively discharged for refusing the vaccine. The Air Force set a date of November 2 for all members of the service to get the vaccine, and thousands have either refused or sought an exemption.

She said all of them were in their first term of enlistment, with under six years of service, so that none of them qualify for a hearing before their discharge, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. Hence, the Air Force went for the low-hanging fruit, going after the younger, lower-ranking personnel. 

None of the airmen had exemptions, whether religious, administrative, or medical, Stefanek said. Stefanek added that some of those discharged may have had other violations on their records, but all of them had refused the vaccine, which was the cause for their discharge, as they had refused to obey a lawful order. 

Stefanek told the AP that discharging troops for disobeying orders is not rare. She said the Air Force discharged 1,800 airmen in the past year for disobeying orders. 

Refusing the vaccine could cost servicemembers money other than losing their pay from the Air Force. According to Air Force officials, those who are discharged for refusing the vaccine are automatically ineligible for involuntary separation pay and may be responsible for repaying any unearned incentive or special pay.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin mandated that all military service members must receive the COVID-19 vaccine back in late August. AP photo

The same report by the WSJ cited that 97 percent of the active-duty service members had complied with the directive from Washington and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued in August. However, a report by the Air Force stated that 18,000 troops are considered unvaccinated. 

The Air Force said earlier in December that all service members who requested exemptions via religious or medical grounds would be exempt from getting the COVID-19 vaccine until their individual reviews were completed.  There are currently 4,700 airmen who asked to be exempted on religious grounds. Thus far, the Air Force has not approved any exemptions. 

The Air Force has not yet disclosed what type of discharge they will separate the troops with. Congress is supposed to be working on legislation that limits the military to giving troops in vaccine refusal cases an honorable discharge or general discharge under honorable conditions.

The Air Force had set the earliest deadline of November 2, but each of the individual services set their own deadline for receiving the vaccine. The Navy and the Marine Corps set a deadline of November 28, while the Army had the latest deadline of December 15, while their Reserve Component and National Guard troops have until June 30, 2022. 

The Pentagon has reported that as of December 10, that 96.4 percent of active-duty personnel had received at least one shot, which is much higher than the U.S. civilian population, which has about 72 percent have received at least one shot. 

But the mandate among the National Guard is facing a federal court challenge. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt is the first state governor to challenge the vaccine mandate, stating that Austin is overstepping his constitutional authority.

Stitt asked Austin to suspend the mandate for the Oklahoma Guard, but Austin doubled down and said that any Guard members disobeying the directive would risk ending their careers. 

Oklahoma Adjutant General, BG Thomas Mancino, posted a letter on the state Guard’s website, warning the state’s Guard members that any troops who refuse to take the vaccine run the risk of ending their military careers.

“Anyone … deciding not to take the vaccine, must realize that the potential for career-ending federal action, barring a favorable court ruling, legislative intervention, or a change in policy is present,” Mancino said in his letter.

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Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) poses with Oklahoma NG troops who responded to the January 6 Capitol protests. Office of Sen. Inhofe photo

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote a letter calling on Austin to immediately suspend the requirement that members of the military’s uniformed and civilian workforces be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. He claims the policy is “politically motivated,” and that the policy is harming “readiness and morale.”

“At a time when our adversaries continue to increase their quantitative and qualitative advantage against our forces, we should seek to ensure that no policy, even unintentionally, hinders military readiness,” Inhofe wrote.

“Most troublesome is the lack of clarity and consistency among the services as they look to implement the administration’s hasty vaccination mandate,” Inhofe said. “Combined with the uncertainty and burden the vaccination mandate places on industry, this administration will do more damage to the nation’s security than any external threat.”