WASHINGTON — Nearly three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers are curious about its impact on military readiness and national defense.
Defense Department leaders defended the actions that the service branches took, insisting that America has a stronger fighting force today.
But, some Republicans weren't buying it.
"We will not relax our vigilance to protect our people and their mission. We will continue to promote vaccinations to maintain medical readiness across the force," said Undersecretary of the Navy Erik Raven Tuesday, during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.
DOD statistics show that more than 2 million troops -- 96% of the overall force -- are considered to be fully vaccinated today. Ninety-six service members died.
"The Department of Defense and the military services took bold, necessary steps to protect the force and its ability to operate in response to this new threat," said Gilbert Cisneros, Jr., Undersecretary of Defense.
But more than 8,000 service members were separated from service for failing to obey the lawful order requiring them to get vaccinated. Republican members of the committee focused on those now-departed personnel, and what their absence means.
Rep Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) asked: "Are we stronger or weaker as a country because these 8,600 people who used to wear the uniform but because of the vaccine mandate now they don't?"
Cisneros replied: "Congressman, I'd say we are as strong as ever. We are still a lethal force We're ready. Our retention is at record-high levels and we are ready to fight today."
Then, an incredulous Rep Alford (R- Missouri) asked, "How are we stronger after losing 8,400 service members?"
Cisneros responded again: "We had over 2 million service members who received the vaccine. That's allowed us to remain operational. It's allowed us to deploy forces. It's allowed us to do the mission and carry out the national defense strategy."
As to questions about the fate of those who got kicked out or who chose to leave the service out of religious convictions, Cisneros said they could follow usual protocols.
When pressed by Gaetz if there would be a special, DOD-initiated outreach program, Cisneros said former troops who were separated from service for vaccine refusal can appeal to their individual branch's Board for the Correction of Military Records.
In January, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a memorandum that rescinded the mandate, which had been in effect for members of the Armed Forces since Aug. 24, 2021, and for the National Guard and Reserve personnel since Nov. 30, 2021.