Three active duty service members appeared in a segment aired Thursday on a podcast hosted by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, accusing the Defense Department of using the COVID-19 vaccine mandate to “intentionally purge” religious service members.

Air Force Capt. Jordan Karr, Army Maj. Samuel Sigoloff and Air Force Master Sgt. Nickolas Kupper made their cases from a variety of angles ― including religious freedom, controversy over the emergency authorization vs. Food and Drug Administration-approved version of the Pfizer vaccine and “natural immunity” to the novel coronavirus. But all agreed that the involuntary separation policy for vaccine refusal is part of a concerted effort to remove certain members of the military.

“If you are a believer and you are listening to this podcast, you need to understand that God-fearing service members are being intentionally purged from the services,” Karr said.

All three service members are party to one of several lawsuits troops have filed against the Defense Department and the services, alleging mostly that the religious exemption process is unconstitutional.

“It’s a purposeful purge,” Sigoloff added. “Anyone who would disobey an unlawful order is being purged out of the military, and there is a shadow policy in place that that is protecting all of these people enforcing this shadow policy.”

Sigoloff, a family medicine osteopath, contends that the vaccine mandate is unlawful because military healthcare providers are administering the Pfizer vaccine authorized for emergency use, rather than the brand-named Comirnaty product that has full FDA licensure.

This has been a sticking point for many opposed to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, but the FDA has said that the two products are the same.

“The FDA-approved Comirnaty (COVID-19 Vaccine, mRNA) and the FDA-emergency use authorized Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine for individuals 12 years of age and older, when prepared according to their respective instructions for use, can be used interchangeably to provide the COVID-19 vaccination series without presenting any safety or effectiveness concerns,” according to FDA guidance. “Therefore, providers can use doses distributed under EUA to administer the vaccination series as if the doses were the licensed vaccine.”

All three troops are subject to involuntary separation because of their refusal to get the vaccine, but they are in a holding pattern as religious exemptions are adjudicated and their lawsuit plays out.

Kupper, in particular, is two years away from retirement eligibility, he said, and so would lose out on a pension and medical benefits for his family if he is forced out.

Since the beginning of this year, as most of the vaccine deadlines have lapsed across the services, roughly 3,400 troops have been discharged for refusal, service personnel officials told lawmakers on Wednesday.

About 70% of those have received general discharges, though the Navy has granted honorable characterizations to all 798 sailors who have been kicked out so far.

To date, 73% of the entire armed forces is fully vaccinated, with another 14% partially vaccinated. The number may rise somewhat in the next two months, as the deadline for the Army Reserve and National Guard passes at the end of June.

The Marine Corps reports the most discharges, with nearly 2,000 out of a service of 215,000, making up nearly 1% of the total Corps.

“I can tell you there are no operational impacts across the force for readiness,” Marine Corps Lt. Gen. David Ottignon told lawmakers. “There’s no one community that has signaled an instance where a [leader], an NCO or another enlisted Marine is not present because of that.”

The drop in numbers aligns with the services’ latest budget requests, which seek to drop end strength everywhere but the Space Force. The Army is hoping to go from about 1.01 million down to 998,000, while the Marine Corps seeks a cut of more than 5,000 billets.

Beyond the thousands who will be discharged for vaccine refusal, Gaetz wondered whether the mandate would have an effect on recruiting and retention in the future.

Personnel officials told lawmakers on Wednesday that the recruiting environment is looking tough, not least of all because a rising economy and low unemployment rate generally go hand-in-hand with low recruitment.

“If it’s my own kids ... I’m going to do everything I can to dissuade them,” Kupper said.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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