WASHINGTON — U.S. military forces around the world will no longer be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine, after the mandate was lifted under an $858 billion defense spending bill passed by Congress and signed into law Friday by President Joe Biden.
The department has 30 days to work out the details for rescinding the mandate. The Pentagon said Friday that in the meantime the military services would pause any personnel actions, such as discharging troops who refused the shot, and all troops would still be encouraged to get vaccinated and boosted.
Ted S. Warren, Associated Press
Staff Sgt. Travis Snyder, left, receives the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine given Dec. 16, 2020, at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
Biden had opposed the Republican-backed provision, agreeing with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that lifting the mandate was not in the best interests of the military, according to White House officials. But he ultimately accepted GOP demands in order to win passage of the legislation.
The contentious political issue, which has divided America, forced more than 8,400 troops out of the military for refusing to obey a lawful order when they declined to get the vaccine. Thousands of others sought religious and medical exemptions.
The new law effectively ends those exemption requests, but questions remain about whether any limited restrictions may continue for troops on specific missions or assigned to areas of the world where vaccination is required.
Austin, who instituted the mandate last August after the Pfizer vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration and as the coronavirus pandemic raged, was staunch in his desire to maintain it, insisting the vaccine was necessary to protect the health of the force. He and other defense leaders argued that for decades troops, particularly those deployed overseas, have been required to get as many as 17 different vaccines. No other vaccine mandates were affected by the new law.
But Congress agreed to rescind the mandate, with opponents reluctantly saying that perhaps it had already succeeded in getting the bulk of the force vaccinated. Roughly 99% of active-duty troops in the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps had gotten the vaccine, and 98% of the Army. The Guard and Reserve rates are lower, but generally are more than 90%.
After signing the defense bill on Friday, Biden said in a statement that certain provisions “raise concerns,” but overall it “provides vital benefits and enhances access to justice for military personnel and their families, and includes critical authorities to support our country’s national defense, foreign affairs, and homeland security.”
The bill includes about $45 billion more for defense programs than Biden requested and roughly 10% more than last year’s bill, as lawmakers looked to account for inflation and boost the nation’s military competitiveness with China and Russia. It includes a 4.6% pay raise for service members and the Defense Department’s civilian workforce.
According to U.S. officials, the department will take at least some of the next 30 days to work out the details of rescinding the vaccine mandate and decide what specific orders will come from Austin and what, if any, flexibility he will leave to service secretaries and chiefs.
Defense officials familiar with the ongoing discussions said there have been high-level meetings on the issue with some spirited discussions, and service leaders made it clear they want clear, specific guidance and for everyone to implement the new directive the same way.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the department is reviewing legal and medical advice as they figure out how to mitigate any potential health risks in military missions.
Austin, however, could leave some decisions to the services — including whether they can require vaccines in some circumstances, such as certain deployments overseas. In recent public comments, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro suggested that rescinding the vaccine mandate could divide the service into two classes of people: those who can deploy and those who can’t.
Military officials vividly recall the overwhelming crisis of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the Navy aircraft carrier that was knocked out of duty and sidelined in Guam for 10 weeks in early 2020 as the virus swept through the ship. More than 1,000 crew members eventually became infected, and one sailor died.
Military leaders worry that if troops begin to refuse the vaccine in large numbers, similar outbreaks could occur. The risk is particularly high on small ships or submarines, where service members are jammed into close quarters for weeks or months at a time, or on critical combat missions, such as those involving special operations forces that deploy in small teams.
What appears clear is that the department won’t be forced to bring back service members who refused the vaccine and were discharged for failure to obey an order. An amendment to require their reinstatement with back pay failed to pass.
What’s not clear is if the services, who are facing recruiting challenges, will want to allow some service members to return, if they still meet all necessary fitness and other requirements.
There are about 18 million veterans in the U.S., of which about 13 million are over the age of 50, according to the Census Bureau. With so many veterans either in retirement or nearing their golden years, SmartAsset looked into the best cities for military retirees to live in.
There are a number of factors that make a city or town a good place for veterans to retire such as military friendliness, access to resources and the local economic environment. In this study, SmartAsset compared 200 of the largest cities in the country across eight metrics spanning those three categories. For more details on how we analyzed the data and compiled the rankings, read the data and methodology section below.
This is SmartAsset's latest study on the best cities for military retirees. Check out the previous version here.
- Three Northwest cities rank in the top five for the second year in a row. They include Anchorage, Alaska; Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Vancouver, Washington. All three cities rank particularly well for our military retirement friendliness category with veterans over the age of 65 making up more than 2.5% of each city's total population.
- Veterans in top-ranked cities have a poverty rate that is 2.2% lower than the national average. On average across the top 10 cities, 5.0% of veterans live below the poverty line. In comparison, nationally, 7.2% of veterans live in poverty.
1. Anchorage, AK
In Anchorage, Alaska, 2.60% of the population is made up of veterans who are 65 and older, which is the 40th-highest percentage for this double-weighted metric. Meanwhile, Anchorage ranks No. 35 for the its low unemployment rate (2.9%) and No. 91 for the percent of veterans living under the poverty line (7.9%). For military retirees who are seniors, the city offers the lowest tax burden (14.78%) across the study.
2. Roseville, CA
Roseville, California ranks seventh-best for its military retirement friendliness index and eighth-highest for its economic environment ranking. Roughly 3% of the population in Roseville are veterans aged 65 and older (15th-highest) and the area offers the 22nd-highest income for veterans ($61,953).
3. Sioux Falls, SD
Sioux Falls, South Dakota remains No. 3 this year due to its continued strong rankings. Sioux Falls boasts a spot among the top 20 cities for our resources for veterans category. In particular, we estimate that there are about 21 VA health facilities and almost two VA benefits administration offices, both per 100,000 veterans.
4. Lakewood, CO
Colorado ranks sixth-best state for the number of VA benefits administration offices per capita, offering 2.30 offices per 100,000 veterans. The city of Lakewood additionally ranks 18th overall for its strong economic environment, which is made up of these three metrics: median veteran income ($53,957), percentage of veterans living under the poverty line (4.8%) and August 2022 unemployment rate (3.0%).
5. Vancouver, WA
Vancouver, Washington ranks second-best for our military retirement friendliness category. Specifically, Vancouver also has the fourth-highest percentage of veterans ages 65 and older (4.03%) and a low estimated senior tax burden (22.02%).
6. Overland Park, KS
Overland Park, Kansas has the second-best ranking for the economic environment index across all 200 cities in our study. Unemployment is low, with only 2.6% of workers out of work in August 2022 (18th-lowest overall). Additionally, Overland offers the 60th-highest number of retirement communities per capita, at 16.53.
7. Chesapeake, VA
Chesapeake, Virginia showcases a top 20 ranking in two metrics: percentage of the population who are veterans ages 65 and up (3.22%) and median veteran income level ($76,406). Chesapeake seniors are less likely to be living under the poverty line with roughly 5.0% of this demographic in this position currently.
8. Surprise, AZ
Surprise, Arizona held a few surprises for us when stacked against the 200 other cities in our study. For starters, the city ranks in the top 10 for both its military retirement friendliness and economic environment. Additionally, this Phoenix suburb took the number one spot in the ranking for the percentage of the population who are veterans ages 65 and older (4.51%) and has the second-lowest veteran poverty rate (1.4%).
9. Oceanside, CA
Oceanside, California moved up one spot this year in the overall rankings for military retirees. Located between Los Angeles and San Diego, the city of Oceanside ranks well for its relatively low percentage of veterans living under the poverty line (5.0%), which is the 28th-lowest across our study. Veterans in Oceanside also earn roughly $58,369, the 34th-highest median income for veterans across the study.
10. Peoria, AZ
Peoria, Arizona rounds out this year's top 10 rankings for the best places for military retirees. Peoria ranks in the top 20 cities for two metrics: percentage of veterans under the poverty line (3.6%) and percentage of population who retired veterans (3.36%). The median veteran income is $60,739, further demonstrating the area's strong economic environment for veterans.
To conduct our study, we compared 200 of the largest cities in the U.S. in eight metrics across three categories:
Military Retirement Friendliness
- Percentage of the population who are veterans ages 65 and older. Data comes from the Census Bureau's 2021 1-Year American Community Survey.
- Retirement communities per 1,000 residents. Data comes from the Census Bureau's 2020 County Business Patterns.
- Estimated senior tax burden. This estimates the income and sales tax burden for seniors. Specifically, we calculated effective income tax rates based on a retiree earning $35,000 annually (from retirement savings, Social Security and part-time employment). We subtracted income taxes paid from gross income to determine disposable income. From there, we factored in sales taxes, assuming disposable income was spent on taxable goods. Data comes from SmartAsset's tax calculators and Avalara.com, a tax software company.
Resources for Veterans
- VA health facilities per 100,000 veterans. Data come from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Census Bureau's 2021 1-year American Community Survey.
- VA benefits administration offices per 100,000 veterans. Data come from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Census Bureau's 2021 1-year American Community Survey. This metric is at the state level.
- Median veteran income. Data comes from the Census Bureau's 2021 1-Year American Community Survey.
- Veteran poverty rate. This is the percentage of veterans living under the poverty line. Data comes from the Census Bureau's 2021 1-Year American Community Survey.
- August 2022 unemployment rate. Data comes from the 2022 Bureau of Labor Statistics and is at a county level.
First, we ranked each city in each metric, assigning an equal weight to every metric, except for the percentage of the population who are veterans ages 65 and older and veteran poverty rate - both of which are double-weighted.
Then we averaged the rankings across the three categories listed above. For each category, the city with the highest average ranking received a score of 100. The city with the lowest average ranking received a score of 0. We created our final ranking by calculating each city's average score for all three categories.
This story originally appeared on SmartAsset and has been independently reviewed to meet journalistic standards. For more information, contact email@example.com.