Involuntary Veterans: Speaking up About Unlawful Discharge

An Air Force F-22 Raptor prepares to receive fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker during Exercise Red Flag over Alaska, Aug. 5, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jesenia Landaverde)

Guest post by Briana G. Céspedes, U.S. Air Force

Why does someone join the United States military? Service members are the one percent who voluntarily raise their hands and swear to defend the Constitution from enemies, foreign and domestic. Sometimes, the domestic enemies pose great threats that have gone unnoticed for too long.

From 2020 to the present, one such service member could never have imagined the illegal actions that would be made against her for simply protecting the oath she took.

Not many know that at least 8,500 active duty members were discharged, most without an honorable characterization, and tens of thousands were placed on permanent non-pay status in the Reserves and National Guard.

And every member has different experiences ranging from loss of pay, coercion, threats from leaders, loss of promotion, and mental and physical injury. For Céspedes, the moment of leaving the military was a sad sigh of relief. In other words, involuntary discharge was the final blow in a long series of mistreatments.

On July 11, 2022, Céspedes was generally discharged from the U.S. Air Force due to her convictions to not participate in a new experimental vaccine. Her conviction was clear as she researched what products the mRNA technology contained and spoke with her Christian mentors.

She could not disregard her body and did not believe she had to force herself though she received pressure on all sides. Secretary of Defense Austin stated in a memo to the Armed Forces that they would not mandate non-FDA approved vaccines (Mandatory Vaccination Program, 2021).

This however, was not the case when it came to implementation and her unit was given a deadline of 2 months before all of them had to be fully vaccinated with only Emergency Authorized Products.

She couldn’t understand why the mandates coming through were not matching with the promises their leaders were telling them. She could not get herself to inject some new product in her body that was not tested as all other vaccines are required to.

With this conviction, she went to the base Chaplain and told him her reasons for requesting a religious exemption. He found her conviction to be sincere and forwarded that information to the commander of her wing.

This was back in September of 2021, when, she received an email directly from her Wing Commander, without anyone cc’d, directly stating that if she did not get the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the month, she would be disobeying a lawful order.

The email also stated that because she would be disobeying a lawful order, she could face court martial and dishonorable discharge. At that moment, she realized, this was going to be a big, long, hard fight. Her MAJCOM (Major Command) Commander had taken the time to individually reach out to her with haste, this was a big deal and obviously pressure coming from the top. She was filled with fear.

But, as her father told her, “Bri, maybe you’re in the military for such a time as this, maybe you’re fight for freedom is different than you thought.” She remembered why she joined and remembered what kept her there.

The U.S. Air Force taught her a few core values: Integrity First, meaning we will always show true character despite pressure; Service Before Self, meaning we will regard other’s lives and livelihoods above our own; and, Excellence in All We Do, meaning taking this fight to the end and excelling with precision.

She realized that many of her peers did not want to take the shot either, but they responded with, “I have no choice, when I joined the U.S. military I gave over my rights.” Dale Saran has a response to that.

“No one’s really litigated that issue,” Saran said. “. . .But we’ve come so far down the road that we just believe it, we just accept that. It’s not correct to say, as a matter of law, that you are suddenly property of the U.S. government once you join the military. For example, if the military said tomorrow ‘we’re going to sterilize everybody who comes into the military because we don’t want to have pregnancies, would anybody think that that was legitimate? I mean you could make a very good argument for it, you could make a very good case for the practical nature of it, but it would be completely illegal, immoral and just terrible,” Saran said. “So as soon as you go with that you could think of all kinds of limits on that power. Does it give you the right to experiment on troops? No.”

This was just the beginning. After submitting her Request for Religious Exemption in September of 2021, she was under the impression that she would be receiving a response to this question which would change her life and service forever, within 140 days.

In Air Force policy 52-201, RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN THE DEPARTMENT OF THE AIR FORCE, it requires that the Air Force respond to the Airmen within this timeline requirement. This mandate can only be exempted by Congress as a T-0 waiver level.

Congress never gave this exemption to the Air Force. It was not until 168 days after submission that she received her first notification on February 14, 2022.

During those almost 6 months, a lot happened. She had been sent to quarantine 8 times, which equals to 112 days in isolation. She had transferred to a new unit where she was the only one required to wear a mask since she was the unvaccinated Airman and could not be in the same room as her coworkers during lunch.

She had received threats of dishonorable discharge, loss of all benefits and was not able to leave the local area as an unvaccinated Airman. When regulations started to ease, they only got stricter for her.

Without the vaccine, she could not enter even a coffee shop because she did not have the COVID Passport. And, at her new unit she experienced another long series of quarantines counting to almost 4 months that she spent in the barracks alone.

This led to long periods of inactivity, wastefulness, and ultimately, mental strain. If the Department of Defense is so worried about suicide among the ranks, then why would they threaten, pressure and isolate to this extent? If not for her faith, Céspedes would have resorted to other options to get out of her misery.

Her appeal was denied promptly after submission on March 24, 2022 and at this point, she knew she would be discharged but not sure when. She prepared herself to make a new way in the civilian world without the GI Bill (where the government covers the cost of a 4-year degree).

She was afraid to fail more than what she had already been told she was failing in. Supervisors, coworkers, friends, commanders, her first sergeant, who is supposed to protect the morale and welfare of the unit, all told her the same thing, “just get the dang vaccine! Then we can help you!” Even her commander told her that he did not want “an essential worker who is valued like you” to be discharged, but “my hands are tied,” he said.

On April 12, 2022, she was given a Letter of Reprimand for violation of UCMJ Article 92, Disobeying a Lawful Order. That same month, as she was supposed to put on her next rank, her commander wrote a Nonrecommendation for Promotion and pulled her Staff Sergeant, E-5 line badge.

Then, May 19, 2022, she received the Notification of Recommendation for Discharge with MISCONDUCT SERIOUS OFFENSE as there reason for discharge. It was here that she learned she would not be getting a dishonorable discharge. She cried from relief. It was not an honorable discharge but, at least she would not be on the same level as a criminal.

She was thankful to the Congressmen and women that worked hard to stop President Biden’s attempt at giving service members like her a dishonorable discharge. She hopes that they will continue to push to upgrade the characterization to honorable, since involuntary veterans cannot continue to be punished for an illegal mandate that has now been rescinded. Many involuntary veterans are not able to pursue school because they are not eligible for the GI bill and are barred from employment opportunities and even third party benefits like membership with national veteran support organizations.

At this point, she was ready to get out. She had made plans with her family, she was prepared to start over. Waiting is what killed her the most. Day to day she had to show up to work in uniform knowing that it would be stripped from her.

For her, it was hard to be proud to wear the uniform when everyone saw her as a threat and a rebel. She got close to the Lord, her family over FaceTime and the local church. She fought for the principle more than the product, realizing the wrong done to everyone. How could we, as the most brave, be known to bow to the most illogical of rules?

This vaccine did not provide immunity nor safety, and more than that, rules were being broken left and right in the implementation of it. The beauty of the United States is the accountability the people are required to keep their leaders to based on the Constitution. That is what kept her standing.

And, on July 11, 2022, she was out. She sat on the kitchen floor in disbelief, full of sadness because she was now returning without the honorable stamp from the military, but with its rejection. But, keeping to her oath had just begun.

And that beginning includes sharing stories of the thousands upon thousands of service members that have suffered the same consequence for their convictions.

We need to raise awareness on the illegality and immorality that was done to those the U.S government says they honor the most. We need to honor our veterans and make sure they receive the veterans support and basic characterization of honorable they deserve.

We train our service members with the principles of liberty, integrity, and honor. So, let’s acknowledge the wrong done and thank our members for maintaining those principles we all are required to defend.

With the recent Declaration of Military Accountability, she joins in the movement to ensure that service members like her, the junior enlisted in the barracks is protected. Protected from willful illegality and misuse of authority within the ranks.

Junior enlisted should be able to trust their leaders, yet, we are facing a crisis of recruitment and retention because of the way DOD leadership has chosen to treat their members. The military should be known for honor and we expect our leaders to be honorable no matter the cost.

This is the story of one Involuntary Veteran.

There are many more out there.

And we won’t stop reminding the DOD leadership what oaths they have taken and keep them accountable to that.

 

Thanks for sharing!