by Natalia Mittelstadt
A U.S. Army pilot who reluctantly received a COVID-19 vaccination has been reprimanded and denied promotion — and could still face discharge and the loss of his wings — after questioning the vaccine and filing complaints about allegedly biased investigations of him, according to his wife and her attorney.
Jessica Hill-Budge, the wife of Chief Warrant Officer 3 Brandon Budge in the 7th Infantry Division’s 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, told Just the News that her husband is likely to lose his nearly 20-year military career due to improperly conducted official investigations of his case.
While Budge never said he wouldn’t get the COVID vaccine, he was initially hesitant to receive it, asking questions about the lawfulness of the mandate, inquiring about religious accommodation requests, and hoping to wait until at least 90 days had passed since he contracted the virus before getting the shot, said Hill-Budge’s attorney, R. Davis Younts.
Budge came down with COVID in March 2021 and was supposed to deploy to South Korea that September. However, if he wasn’t vaccinated, he was told, he would have to quarantine for two weeks. His wife was pregnant at the time with their seventh child, so he wanted to avoid quarantining lest he miss the birth of their son.
Towards the end of summer 2021, Budge went to a clinic for another matter, but the medic, thinking she was helping him, falsified his record without his knowledge to show that he received the COVID vaccine, Younts said. Budge got the shot soon after and learned that his records showed he had already received it.
He inquired about the inaccurate record and was told that the medic was under investigation, but he himself wasn’t. It turned out he actually was under investigation, but investigators didn’t inform him or read him his rights when they interviewed him, according to Younts. Because of the investigation, Budge was flagged and not deployed to South Korea.
The investigation into the falsified vaccine record didn’t take into account Budge’s evidence or witness testimony proving that he received the vaccine, Hill-Budge and Younts said. Despite this, the investigation concluded in November 2021, and Budge received a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand in December.
In January 2022, Budge filed an inspector general complaint about the handling of the investigation, but nothing was done about it, Younts said. Budge was told by his battalion commander that there were “gaping holes” in the investigation and that mistakes had been made, Budge-Hill added. The commander said that he hoped future investigations would be conducted better because this was one of the worst he’d seen.
Budge was told in February that there would be a Flying Evaluation Board, which would determine whether or not he could keep his wings, meaning remain able to fly. That same month Budge was supposed to receive a promotion to Chief Warrant Officer 4, but because he was flagged due to the falsified vaccine records, he never received it.
In March, Budge filed another inspector general complaint, but this time, it was over the board. The board was picked by Budge’s brigade commander in response to the January complaint, Younts alleges, so Budge filed the second inspector general complaint for reprisal and retaliation.
The board accepted the evidence that Budge provided them and in April exonerated him regarding the falsified vaccine records, recommending that he keep his wings. Despite this, Budge has still not received his promotion, and the reprimand he received in December has not been revoked, said Hill-Budge and Younts. He also has not been allowed to fly, which means he is not up to date on his required flight hours.
Younts said that the commander overseeing the investigations chose to ignore the board’s recommendation partly because of Budge’s second inspector general complaint. Adverse actions are not supposed to be taken against a service member for filing an inspector general complaint, he noted.
The IG investigation is ongoing, and the investigator falls under the same command as Budge, rather than above or outside it to ensure objectivity. Younts said the investigator should be either a Defense Department inspector general or an inspector general from a higher level of command within the Army.
Like the first investigation, the current IG probe has not taken into consideration any of Budge’s evidence, said Hill-Budge and Younts. The investigator eventually agreed to interview Budge’s wife after receiving pressure to do so, they recounted, but told her that her testimony regarding the events is irrelevant because Budge is her husband.
The conduct of the IG investigation to date has “made clear” that Budge’s wings will be taken away and he will be discharged from the Army, Younts asserts.
Budge cannot take his case to federal court until the investigation is complete. However, Younts said, the process for taking away Budge’s wings and discharging him from the military would happen too quickly to take it to court.
Budge is not covered by any of the class-action lawsuits regarding the vaccine mandate because he has already received the shot. Younts said that if the investigation into Budge is “not done right, he won’t have very many options.”
If Budge loses his wings and is discharged from the Army, he would be unable to fly anywhere else afterward, the military attorney added.
Budge’s command is “very upset that he didn’t just immediately get the vaccine, and that he asked questions and pushed back” rather than quickly getting it and encouraging others to do so, Younts alleges.
Just prior to publication of this article, the 7th Infantry Division told Just the News that they can’t provide any details on the investigation into Budge because it’s privileged information. The division public affairs officer said, however, that according to Budge’s command, the Flying Evaluation Board won’t be pursued and Budge will be flying again soon, if he’s not already.
Just the News asked Younts if Budge had heard anything about this. “He has heard nothing,” he replied. “No news.”
Moreover, “they are keeping the Reprimand and the referral evaluation report and they stopped his promotion,” Younts said. “He was exonerated and they are not removing those things,” which “will kill his career.”
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Natalia Mittelstadt is a reporter at Just the News. Mittelstadt graduated from Regent University with Bachelor of Arts degrees in Communication Studies and Government.