Marine Veteran Warns of Continued Concerns Despite Military COVID Vaccine Mandate Repeal

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
March 17, 2023Vaccines
Marine Veteran Warns of Continued Concerns Despite Military COVID Vaccine Mandate Repeal
Tommy Waller, the president and CEO of the Center for Security Policy, speaks with NTD, in a still from a video released on March 15, 2023. (NTD)

Tommy Waller, an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, ended his military career last year after being denied a religious accommodation to avoid the military-wide COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Though the vaccine mandate was recently repealed, Waller remains concerned that remaining unvaccinated troops could still be targeted.

Waller, who served as the commander of a reserve Force Reconnaissance Company, was denied his religious accommodation request on Nov. 10, 2021—the official birthday of the Marine Corps. Waller believes the way the Marines handled the vaccine mandate was unlawful and, though he was denied his request, Waller held out for another year in hopes of a different outcome.

“I waited a year for the Marine Corps to be able to wake up to the fact that what they were doing was unlawful,” Waller told NTD News. “And then of course, after a year, I decided to go ahead and retire.”

Not long after Waller retired from the Marines, Congress included a provision in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (pdf) to repeal the vaccine mandate. Despite his objections to the vaccine provision, President Joe Biden signed the NDAA, thus bringing about the official repeal of the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Waller, who now serves as the president and CEO of the Center for Security Policy, raised the possibility that unvaccinated service members could still be punished for declining the COVID-19 vaccine.

Last week, Fox News published a letter by Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Gilbert Cisneros, which stated that 69,000 of the 2 million active service members never received a vaccine. Cisneros wrote that about 53,000 of those unvaccinated service members sought a medical exemption or religious accommodation, and that “no Service members currently serving will be separated based solely on their refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccination if they sought an accommodation based on religious, administrative, or medical grounds.” The wording of Cisneros’ letter seemed to leave open the possibility that the 16,000 unvaccinated service members who did not request some kind of exemption or accommodation could still face a discharge from the military.

Though the vaccine mandate is gone, the military could potentially argue that the 16,000 unvaccinated troops who never requested any exemption or accommodation disobeyed a lawful order to be vaccinated, and thus warranted discharge from the military.

Was FDA-Approved Vaccine Available?

Waller argued that the legal basis for the vaccine mandate may be tenuous if an FDA-approved version of a COVID-19 vaccine was not actually available to the military.

“What happened is [Defense Secretary] Lloyd Austin gave an order that was lawful and said, ‘You’ll inoculate the force with an FDA-approved vaccine,'” Waller said. “[But an FDA-approved vaccine] did not exist. In fact, I think it’s still a question whether or not you can get the version of the vaccine that Pfizer got FDA approval for.”

The first COVID-19 vaccines became available in the United States through emergency use authorizations (EUAs). The FDA eventually granted full approval for a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine version called “Comirnaty” in August of 2021.

After the FDA approved Comirnaty, Austin issued the military vaccine mandate (pdf), which stated that the mandatory vaccinations “will only use COVID-19 vaccines that receive full licensure from the … FDA in accordance with FDA-approved labeling and guidance.”

Though Comirnaty had FDA approval, military plaintiffs filed lawsuits arguing that the FDA-approved drug label was not actually publicly available, but only the EUA version of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and other EUA-based vaccines. Last May, a Navy administrative separation board ruled that U.S. Navy Lt. Bill Moseley was within his rights to refuse to be vaccinated without requesting any exemption or accommodation, because the military had not made the FDA-approved version of a vaccine available.

Waller Says Mandate Was Political Purge

While the vaccine mandate is gone and the original legality of the mandate is in dispute, Waller said the leadership that brought about the mandate is still in charge.

“We think that just because the National Defense Authorization Act … repealed or rolled back this mandate that the problem is over, but the same people who inflicted it upon the Department of Defense personnel are still there,” Waller said.

The retired Marine argued that the now-defunct vaccine mandate served as a tool to “purge” people from the military for political reasons, and “I think it’s been highly effective at removing those that won’t break the law for those that are in charge.”

NTD News reached out to the Department of Defense for comment but has not received a reply.