PolitifactNC

Fact check: Did Biden order 'dishonorable discharge' for troops that refuse COVID vaccine?

Posted October 4, 2021 5:35 p.m. EDT
Updated October 5, 2021 5:43 p.m. EDT

A new rumor on social media falsely claimed that President Joe Biden commanded the military to dishonorably discharge service members who reject the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. That’s not true.

In reality, Biden gave no such direction, and legal experts said he wouldn’t have the authority to do so. But various posts claiming otherwise garnered thousands of engagements on Instagram.

"Biden orders dishonorable discharge for 46% of troops who refuse vaccine," said the Instagram posts, which shared screenshots of a Sept. 23 headline from a blog site called "Sandra Rose."

The posts were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed.

Asked whether Biden had issued such a directive, the White House referred PolitiFact to the Pentagon, which offered a simple rebuttal: "Regarding the claim on Instagram, that is false."

Biden doesn’t have authority to order dishonorable discharges

Several branches of the military separately confirmed that they had not received a White House order like the Instagram posts described. "President Biden has not ordered the Coast Guard to dishonorably discharge Coast Guard members who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine," said Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll, chief of media relations for the Coast Guard, in one such statement.

There are several types of discharge service members can face, military experts said. From best to worst, the options include honorable discharges; general discharges under honorable conditions; other than honorable discharges; bad conduct discharges; and dishonorable discharges. The first three occur at the administrative level. But the latter two must be handed down by a court martial, experts said, so Biden does not have authority to order them.

"Under decades-old federal law, a dishonorable discharge can only be given to a service member who has been convicted by a general court-martial," said Dwight Stirling, founder and CEO of the Center for Law and Military Policy, a think tank, and a lecturer in law at the University of Southern California.

Richard Rosen, a law professor and director of the Center for Military Law and Policy at Texas Tech University, said those who shared the Instagram posts may have been confused by reports that the Biden administration opposed a recent legislative proposal that would prohibit military leaders from dishonorably discharging service members who rebuff the vaccine mandate.

In response to PolitiFact’s inquiry, the account behind one Instagram post, which got nearly 5,000 likes, pointed to an article from Fox News about exactly that.

The Office of Management and Budget said in a Sept. 21 statement of administration policy that the administration "strongly oppose(d)" the provision, which was written as an amendment to the defense spending bill for the 2022 fiscal year. The statement that such legislation "would detract from readiness and 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."

But the administration’s opposition to such legislation is "not the same thing as the president directing a dishonorable discharge," Rosen said.

The branches of the military set up different timelines for getting troops vaccinated. According to the Military Times, the Army’s active-duty troops have until Dec. 15, while the Air Force and Space Force set Nov. 2 as their deadline, and the Marine Corps and Navy picked Nov. 28.

Service members can request exemptions for medical and religious reasons.

How each branch will handle those who refuse the shots remains to be seen, but some branches have telegraphed their intentions. The Army, for example, has said that while hesitant soldiers will initially receive counseling, "continued failure to comply could result in administrative or non-judicial punishment — to include relief of duties or discharge."

"Taking the vaccine is a requirement, and again, I'll just leave it at that," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress Sept. 28.

It is legally possible for service members who refuse the vaccine to be dishonorably discharged, Rosen said, though it would require a trial, with all the rights attendant to a criminal proceeding.

Stirling said a dishonorable discharge is akin to a felony conviction, and that it’s more likely these troops would face an administrative response, which could include a written reprimand, a comment in a performance evaluation, a demotion, or one of the less severe forms of discharge.

Vaccination rates are higher in military

The Instagram post’s claim about "46% of troops" refusing the vaccine came from the Sandra Rose blog post, which said that 600,000 out of the more than 1.3 million active-duty service members had "declined to roll up their sleeves." Those numbers aren’t accurate.

According to June data from the Pentagon, the U.S. employs almost 1.38 million active-duty troops, plus nearly 800,000 National Guard and reserves. It’s roughly 2.18 million in total.

The Pentagon data shows that as of Sept. 29, 1.28 million active-duty, National Guard and reserve troops had been fully vaccinated, and 384,824 had been partially vaccinated. That means that about 76% were fully or partially vaccinated, and about 59% were fully vaccinated. It also means that closer to 24% had received no vaccines.

Maj. Charlie Dietz, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, told PolitiFact that as of Oct. 1, about 95% of active-duty troops had been fully or partially vaccinated.

Dietz said the military’s vaccination rates have increased significantly following the mandate, and that he was unaware of anyone being discharged for refusing to comply.

PolitiFact ruling

PolitiFact: False

Instagram posts said, "Biden orders dishonorable discharge for 46% of troops who refuse vaccine."

There’s no evidence that Biden has given any such direction, and experts on military law said he wouldn’t have the legal authority to do so as president. The percentage of active-duty military service members who have been partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is about 95%, and the deadlines are a month or more away.

We rate this post False.

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