Military Service Members May Not Get Veterans Benefits if They Refuse Vaccine: Pentagon

U.S. military members who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19 may have their eligibility for veterans' benefits stripped, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) said Wednesday.

Troops who refuse the vaccine will reportedly not receive any special protections in regard to their dismissals from the military, according to the Military Times.

The decision on whether or not to give troops an other-than-honorable or dishonorable discharge will now fall on the individual commanders of local stations, and the Times stated that commanders were instructed not to give "any preferential evaluations for veterans' benefits eligibility."

Typically, service members are automatically barred from receiving benefits if they receive a dishonorable discharge, such as a court marshal or desertion, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Benefits that can be lost include home loans, GI Bill benefits, and a variety of other military subsidiary programs.

An other-than-honorable discharge may still be eligible for "treatment at a VA medical facility for disabilities determined to be service-connected," such as mental health evaluations, according to the VA. However, they will not have access to the majority of other benefits.

In all other cases, the VA typically takes a number of factors into account when determining benefits eligibility, including service records and length of service.

US Army Uniform
The Department of Defense stated that veterans who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19 may not receive VA benefits. Here, a U.S. Army uniform can be seen. Christof Stache/Getty

Republicans in Congress have recently been pushing for the removal of benefits to be less harsh for those who refuse the vaccine. A House measure was also passed in September that would ban the military from issuing dishonorable discharges to people in that category, though it still faces a battle in the Senate.

Despite this, though, the DOD said that the vaccine is about keeping service members safe.

"We see the vaccine as a readiness issue," Gil Cisneros, DOD undersecretary for personnel, testified to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "Any discharge decision is up to the individual service as to how they proceed with that."

Two branches of the military, the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force had nearly 8,500 members miss the recent November 2 vaccination deadline. The other branches also have deadlines for the shot in the next few weeks.

Despite the hesitancy of some of the military to receive the vaccine, the DOD emphasized that the mandate was necessary in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Additionally, VA Deputy Secretary Donald Remy said that when it comes to determining benefits, military members who are discharged for vaccine refusal will be viewed the same way as all other discharges: To see if there were "mitigating or extenuating circumstances, performance, and accomplishments during their service, the nature of the infraction and the character of their service at the time of their discharge."

Records indicate that over 70 active service members have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, of whom none were fully vaccinated.

The number was even greater among VA patients, where over 16,000 people have lost their lives to the coronavirus.

A spokesperson for the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee told Newsweek that "[chair of the committee] Senator Tester believes that military commanders know what's best for our troops, and he respects the word of the uniformed surgeon generals of the Army, Navy, and Air Force who have all endorsed the safety of—and need for—the vaccine. He will continue working to ensure our brave men and women in uniform have the resources they need to keep our country safe."

Updated 11/05/2021, 4:23 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with a statement from the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.