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Blog pushes falsehoods about discipline for unvaccinated troops

October 2, 2021 GMT

CLAIM: President Joe Biden has ordered dishonorable discharges for the 46% of troops who have refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. While troops who refuse to comply with the Pentagon’s recent vaccine mandate could legally be disciplined, including potentially being dishonorably discharged from the service, Biden has not ordered this action. In fact, the president does not have the authority to make those decisions, the Department of Defense confirmed in a statement to The Associated Press. Additionally, it is not true that 46% of troops have refused vaccines — the true percentage is considerably smaller.

THE FACTS: In August, all military troops were ordered to get a coronavirus vaccine. And while different branches of the military have varying deadlines for vaccination, most are still several weeks or months away.

DOD spokesperson Maj. Charlie Dietz told the AP that 95% of active-duty troops have received at least one shot.

But an erroneous Sept. 23 blog post inflated the number of troops who have yet to be vaccinated and used a misleading headline to suggest Biden was urgently seeking their dishonorable dismissal from the service for defiance. Screenshots of the headline spread on social media and were shared thousands of times.

A Pentagon official told the AP that the claim made in the headline is false. Biden has not issued any such order, and further, military discharges are handled by the respective military services, not the president.

A dishonorable discharge is given after a court-martial for serious offenses such as felonies. Other types of negative discharges are issued administratively, outside of the courts, for behavior including talking back, drug use or fighting. Virtually no post-military benefits are available for those who receive a dishonorable discharge.

While the claims circulating online are false, the Biden administration did recently oppose a proposal by the DOD to remove dishonorable discharge from the list of disciplinary options that could be used against service members who refuse COVID-19 vaccines.

The proposal appeared as a subsection in the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual bill that sets the DOD’s budget.

The Office of Management and Budget said in a Sept. 21 statement that the Biden administration opposed the subsection because it would “limit a commander’s options for enforcing good order and discipline when a Service member fails to obey a lawful order to receive a vaccination” and that “commanders must have the ability to give orders and take appropriate disciplinary measures.”

The administration disagreed with removing dishonorable discharges from the list of possible disciplinary actions. However, the administration did not order that such a punishment be carried out.

Other less serious options for discipline are also available to military leadership, and issuing a dishonorable discharge is not the primary enforcement action taken for noncompliance, according to statements from Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby.

Kirby, speaking about the vaccine mandate in a Sept. 24 briefing, said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III “wants this lawful order to be executed in a fair-minded, compassionate way,” adding that commanders at local levels should make punitive decisions “based on what’s best for them and for their units.”

Later Kirby added, “commanders have a range of tools available to them, short of using the Uniform Code of Military Justice, short of disciplinary action, to help individuals make the best decision, the right decision for themselves, for their families, and for their teammates.”

For example, the Army’s public affairs division said in a Sept. 17 post that soldiers who refuse the vaccine will be given counseling from command leaders and medical providers, and repeated failure to comply could result in “administrative or non-judicial punishment” including relief of duties or discharge.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.