Former Vice President Mike Pence in an exclusive interview called on the Biden administration to reinstate and provide back pay to members of the military who were discharged for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine now that the mandate for the shot has been lifted.

Pence, in a Wednesday interview with The Hill, called it “unconscionable” that some troops were put in a position to decide between serving their country and complying with the vaccine mandate, which was instituted in August 2021. The mandate was rescinded through a bipartisan defense policy bill signed into law late last year.

“I think it was unconscionable that the Biden administration mandated the vaccine on members of the armed forces of the United States, and I celebrate Congress’s recent decision to rescind that mandate, but that doesn’t go far enough,” Pence said. 

“I think now that Secretary Austin has implemented what Congress passed into law, lifting the vaccine mandate on members of our armed forces, now I’m calling on the Biden administration and the Pentagon to reinstate every man and woman that was discharged from our armed forces because they refused to take the vaccine, and give them 100 percent back pay for the time after they were discharged,” Pence continued.

The overwhelming majority of the nation’s service members got the COVID-19 vaccination before or after it became a requirement. More than 8,000 were discharged for refusing the shot, however. Most were discharged under terms that allowed them to continue to receive veterans benefits.

In a memo announcing the mandate had been dropped, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said those who were discharged can petition for a change in the characterization of their discharge in personnel records.

“The Department will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all service members,” Austin wrote in the memo. “Vaccination enhances operational readiness and protects the force.”

Opposition to the vaccine mandate became a rallying cry for conservatives, who have for the last two years opposed attempts by the Biden administration to require the COVID-19 shot for workers and troops.

Pence credited the Supreme Court with striking down a policy that would require large companies to have employees either get vaccinated or tested for COVID-19, though it left in place a mandate for health care workers to get vaccinated.

The former vice president led the White House COVID-19 task force during the Trump administration, and he argued that officials during the last administration did not support mandates.

Pence was a major proponent of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine in record time, and he got his shot on camera in the final weeks of his vice presidency to promote its safety. 

Some conservatives have expressed skepticism about the vaccine, raising questions about its effectiveness. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a potential 2024 presidential candidate, late last month asked a state grand jury to investigate the COVID-19 vaccines and whether the public was misled about their efficacy.

Former President Trump did not get his shot on camera, and he has tip-toed around making direct calls for his supporters to get vaccinated.

Pence, who is also viewed as a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate, did not directly address DeSantis’s comments on Wednesday. He expressed pride in the work that was done during the Trump administration to develop the vaccine, but he argued some of the skepticism about the shots can be attributed to mandates that were put in place.

“We never supported a vaccine mandate,” Pence said. “And I understand the concern that people in this country have about the vaccines, but I really believe it ultimately finds its origins in the fact that a vaccine mandate came along and people were required to take it.”