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The United States Army will begin separating soldiers from service who refuse to get COVID-19 vaccines. 

Effective immediately, soldiers “who have refused the lawful order to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and who do not have a pending or approved exemption request” will be separated from the Army and can be potentially discharged, the Army said in a statement.

“Separation” is a general term that includes discharge, release from active duty, and similar changes in active or reserve status.

The U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines have all already started separations for vaccine refusal. The Pentagon announced in August that it intended to make the vaccine a requirement for service members.

This will be the first time the Army has involuntarily separated any soldiers for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, but the Pentagon says commanders have relieved six regular Army leaders, including two battalion commanders, and issued 3,073 general officer written reprimands to soldiers for refusing the vaccination order, as of January 26. 

The vaccine policy applies to regular Army soldiers, reserve-component soldiers serving on Title 10 active-duty, and cadets. Those who are separated will not be eligible for involuntary separation pay.

Soldiers are allowed to apply for a medical exemption or religious accommodation, but if their request is denied they have seven days to begin vaccination or submit an appeal. If the appeal is denied, they will have another seven days to begin the vaccine regimen. 

“Army readiness depends on Soldiers who are prepared to train, deploy, fight and win our nation’s wars,” Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth said in a statement. “Unvaccinated Soldiers present risk to the force and jeopardize readiness. We will begin involuntary separation proceedings for Soldiers who refuse the vaccine order and are not pending a final decision on an exemption.”

The Army reports that 96% of active duty soldiers have already completed vaccination, as have 79% of Army reservists. Slightly higher numbers are partly vaccinated.

Army leaders say they will continue to counsel soldiers about the health benefits of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

-Eleanor Watson contributed reporting.