Navy Prepares To Discharge Sailors Who Don’t Get COVID-19 Vaccine

October 19, 2021Hannah Ray Lambert

Sailors man the rails of the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) as the ship returns to its home port in Yokosuka, Japan, May 24, 2020. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Matt Hall.

The Navy is preparing to discharge sailors who won’t be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the Nov. 28 deadline. Fortunately, according to a senior official, it won’t be that many.

“To date, over 98 percent of active-duty U.S. Navy service members have met our readiness responsibility by completing or initiating a COVID-19 vaccination series,” Adm. William Lescher, vice chief of naval operations, said in a memo released Thursday, Oct. 14, that lays out exactly when and how the Navy will begin discharging unvaccinated members.

Active-duty sailors who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 after that deadline will be kicked out of the Navy unless they have a pending or approved exemption, according to the administrative guidance issued Thursday. The deadline for sailors in the reserves is Dec. 28. An analysis by Coffee or Die Magazine found that 94% of all Navy personnel, including Reserve members, are vaccinated, a far higher rate than in any other service.

“Sailors must be prepared to execute their mission at all times, in places throughout the world, including where vaccination rates are low and disease transmission is high,” according to a Navy press release. “Immunizations are of paramount importance to protecting the health of the force and the warfighting readiness of the Fleet.”

The Independence-variant littoral combat ships USS Tulsa (LCS-16), right, USS Manchester (LCS-14), center, and USS Independence (LCS-2), left, sail in formation in the eastern Pacific, Feb. 27, 2019. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe.

The Pentagon defines “fully vaccinated” as having received all necessary vaccination shots — either one or two doses, depending on the brand — and completing the waiting period of two weeks after the final dose. For the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, that’s two weeks after the single-dose administration. But for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which require two doses 21 and 28 days apart, respectively, becoming fully vaccinated takes more than a month.

That makes Nov. 14 the last day active-duty sailors can receive the single Johnson & Johnson dose or a second shot in a two-dose vaccine series and still be fully vaccinated by the Nov. 28 deadline.

The Navy’s newly established COVID Consolidated Disposition Authority will handle the cases of sailors who refuse the vaccine. The panel could seek recoupment of bonuses, incentive pay, and the cost of training and education for service members refusing the vaccine.

The new guidance is even tougher on sailors deemed “senior” leaders, which the memo defines as enlisted members in the rank of E-6 or higher, all flag-rank officers, and “members of command triads and those key staff positions.” Such senior leaders were told to begin vaccination proceedings by today or face detachment proceedings, according to Thursday’s guidance. 

“An unvaccinated senior leader without a pending or approved exemption calls into question the Navy’s trust and confidence regarding their ability to ensure unit readiness or to maintain good order and discipline,” the guidance reads.

Also, any member, regardless of rank, who is openly refusing the vaccine can be discharged immediately, regardless of the Nov. 28 deadline, according to the memo.

vaccine mandate
COVID-19 immunization cards are distributed to vaccine recipients following their vaccinations Dec. 16, 2020, at Naval Health Clinic Hawaii. US Navy photo by Macy Hinds.

Those separated solely for vaccine refusal “will receive no lower than a general discharge under honorable conditions,” according to the Navy release. However, even a general discharge could result in the loss of some veterans’ benefits, the Navy warned.

Since the pandemic began, 164 people “within the Navy family” have died from COVID-19, Vice Adm. John B. Nowell Jr., the chief of naval personnel, wrote in the press release. At least 144 were unvaccinated, according to the Navy.

That number exceeded “the combined total of all other health or mishap” injuries and deaths during the same time period, Nowell wrote. The statistics include civilian personnel.

In total, 67 military personnel from all of the branches have died of COVID-19, according to the Pentagon, including three on Oct. 3.

In late August, the Pentagon announced it would require service members to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 but allowed each branch to set its own deadlines and removal processes.

The Navy is the first of the five branches to release a detailed separation process.

Read Next: As Military Vaccine Deadline Looms, Almost 430,000 Still Unvaccinated

Hannah Ray Lambert
Hannah Ray Lambert

Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.

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