President Joe Biden admitted last month what most of the country has known for well over a year: The COVID-19 pandemic is over, and it’s past time we moved on. Unfortunately, thousands of military members are unable to do so because of the vaccine mandate Biden passed last year and continues to enforce.

About 16,000 service members have applied for an exemption to Biden’s vaccine mandate over the past year. Fewer than 20 exemptions have been approved — the Marine Corps has granted six conscientious objections; the Air Force, nine, and the Navy has granted one exemption for a reserve sailor on the condition he must be fully vaccinated if he is called up to active-duty service.

Everyone else who applied was either denied, and then punished or discharged, or left in limbo while the application makes its way through the administrative ranks. Yet the Biden administration last year gave more than 165,000 federal workers exemptions and extensions to the vax mandate.

The result is that thousands of perfectly healthy young men and women are being prevented from serving their country and contributing to the military’s readiness. More than two dozen elite Navy SEALs have been told they are undeployable unless they get the jab. The Navy even decommissioned an East Coast guided-missile destroyer and its crew of 320 sailors because its commanding officer wasn’t fully vaccinated.

As of this summer, Army Reserve command had relieved eight leaders, including six commanders, and issued more than 1,575 general officer written reprimands to unjabbed soldiers. And the Navy has discharged nearly 300 unvaxxed sailors.

Unvaccinated service members who have been allowed to remain in the military have had their responsibilities stripped from them, and some allege they’ve faced retaliation from commanding officers as punishment for their objection to the mandate.

One Marine captain and F-35 pilot told me that as soon as his exemption was denied, he was grounded from flight and demoted to an administrative desk job. Another Marine told me his command threatened to kick him out of his training program if he even submitted an exemption request. He has since been blocked from completing that program.

Still more have been cut off from their military benefits and ordered to reimburse costs the military agreed to pay. In the Army alone, roughly 40,000 National Guard and 22,000 Reserve soldiers who objected to the mandate have had their benefits stopped and been told to repay scholarships and other education costs.

Navy service members who applied for exemptions alleged in a recent lawsuit they were forced to live in separate housing from their vaccinated peers and barred from leaving their military base. One sailor said in the suit that the stigmatization and isolation to which he had been subjected left him “desperately” wanting to be “separated from the Navy as soon as possible.” 

Biden is forcing service members to choose between their conscience and their country — a choice that will break down unit cohesion and destroy trust in the military’s upper command. How many of these young men and women will choose not to reenlist after their contract has expired, if they haven’t already been discharged? How many of them will discourage their family members and friends from volunteering their service to an institution they believe has betrayed them?

Biden is setting the military up for a crisis when it can’t afford one. Our armed forces are already struggling to meet basic recruitment quotas, with every branch failing to meet its 2022 goals. The Army has met only 40% of its enlisted recruiting mission; the Air Force, which aims to recruit about 50,000 airmen every year, is 4,000 below its goal. The last time the Air Force missed its recruitment goal was 1999.

At the same time, the threats we face abroad continue to grow as Russian dictator Vladimir Putin rattles his nuclear arsenal and Iran’s regime becomes increasingly volatile.

Biden should repeal the mandate immediately and urge the Defense Department to reinstate unvaccinated service members to their original positions. There was never any justification for purging our military of capable young men and women in the first place, but now that the pandemic is over, the absurdity of the mandate is obvious. Our country needs a strong and ready military; what it doesn’t need is more COVID theater.