FIRST ON FOX: US Coast Guard members who are nearing 20 years in military service but have not complied with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate due to religious objections are now being terminated just before they gain full access to promised military pension and retirement benefits.
One former service member, Chris Harkins, was formally discharged on Dec. 1 after serving exactly 19 years in the USCG. He had orders for retirement on Jan. 1, 2024, and had saved up leave days to max out starting in late June 2023. However, he was informed, just about seven months before he would hit the 20-year mark to receive a lifelong monthly pension, that he was being discharged over his refusal to get vaccinated due to his sincerely held religious beliefs.
“Based on your decision not to receive the mandatory covid vaccine as ordered, you have been processed for separation (discharge),” read an email Harkins on Oct. 20 and that was obtained by Fox News Digital. “Your retirement orders are being canceled as 10 US code 1176 (a does not apply to members of the CG. There is no safe harbor for a CG member with 18 or more years TIS [time in service],” the email continued.
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Harkins, who was most recently stationed in Juneau, Alaska, managed classified spaces and communications for a 2-star admiral. He said that he watched other service members with more serious disciplinary actions taken against them, including accusations of child sexual abuse, reach the 20-year requirement and get the full array of benefits.
However, Harkins, who had a spotless record and zero negative marks in any evaluations or reviews for almost two decades, is now ineligible.
“I felt targeted by all these upper ranking officers,” he explained, calling it a “passive-aggressive kind of punishment, ‘We’re just going to set you over here in the corner until you essentially comply with the mandate or you’ re kicked out,’ essentially,” he said.
One former active-duty service member told Fox News Digital that it is astonishing that the military would deny service members their hard-earned benefits at 20 years for seeking religious accommodations to vaccination. He said the military often allows service members to retire out at 20 years and collect their full benefits despite citations for insubordination, sexual harassment not amounting to rape and DUIs.
The military is suffering from low recruitment and retention, in large part due to its own restrictive policies, including the vaccine requirement.
One active-duty guardsman who received an intent to discharge notice from the USCG after serving for nearly 19 years, told Fox News Digital that he is in limbo waiting to be formally separated, which could happen any day.
“This is not about readiness as they state, it’s about compliance,” the guardsman said. “They are not willing to look objectively at the facts of, ‘Is it really necessary or not?’ They just want essentially ‘yes men’ And then if you’re not going to be a ‘yes man,’ they’re going to treat you the same as or worse than people who got an alcohol incident or a DUI or checked out for drugs or something like that.”
He said his faith and family are carrying him through as he waits to hear from the USCG about his separation date.
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Another still active-duty legacy guardsman, who served almost 16 years and whose father was in the USCG, said he is set to be discharged in June 2023.
“Given all my qualifications, CG Headquarters agreed to allow me to stay for 8 months as an unvaccinated member because they need me too much. As an unvaccinated service member, I have continued to perform my duties and will continue to faithfully serve to the best of my ability until I am either discharged or allowed to retire in 4 years. I will say though that the military I joined 15 years ago, the one that was revered and desired by many, is now only a shell of itself,” he told Fox News Digital.
Paula Runyon, who was discharged in November after serving for 15.5 years, told Fox News Digital: “My heart is broken as I loved my job, I truly loved being a storekeeper, and I truly loved serving in the Coast Guard. Unfortunately, because of how I was treated, I will never go back.”
“The pressure that this ordeal has put on my wife, child, and newborn baby, is something we will struggle with for years to come,” Christopher Collins, who served the USCG for 11.5 years before also being discharged in November said.
The USCG did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.
The Coast Guard previously told Fox News Digital that “no Coast Guard members have been penalized for seeking religious accommodations from the COVID-19 vaccine requirement,” while also confirming that it is in the process of discharging any members without approved exemption requests.
Harkins called the USCG’s action similar to a “purge” of ethical Christians seeking religious exemptions.
“The Coast Guard has been pushing diversity and inclusion and equality for the last ten years, like down our throats, to the point of just choking on the training,” Harkins said. “And now where is the diversity, inclusion and equity now? Well, it’s because we’re Christian, and we’re not part of that other community. And so it honestly feels like it feels like a purge of moral, ethical, Christian people is what it feels like.”
As for next steps, “We are going to keep up the pressure on the lawsuit,” Harkins said.
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Harkins is involved in a large class action lawsuit that is set to have its first hearing in court on Dec. 15 in Galveston, Texas.