The Navy has begun kicking out sailors who refuse to get the Covid-19 vaccine, but it won’t slap dishonorable discharges on anyone for their decision to ignore a direct order.
Overall, 5,731 active-duty sailors remain unvaccinated, and at this point Navy officials say they believe most of those will likely continue to refuse the order, weeks after the Nov. 28 deadline for full vaccination.
“If a sailor gets their shot, we will honor that and make every effort to retain them,” Rear Adm. James Waters, the Navy’s director of military personnel plans and policy, told reporters. “On the other hand, those who continue to refuse the vaccine will be required to leave the Navy.”
A total of 336,000 sailors are vaccinated, a massive undertaking that service leaders stressed was necessary to keep ships crewed during deployments, where sailors work in close contact in cramped spaces for months at a time.
The announcement comes the same week the Air Force discharged more than two-dozen airmen for refusing the shot.
Under the Navy’s rules, unvaccinated officers and enlisted sailors eligible to retire or leave the service before June 1, 2022, will be allowed to do so with an honorable discharge.
Those not eligible to leave by that date “will be processed for separation on the basis of misconduct for refusing the lawful order to be vaccinated,” Waters said, but will still receive an honorable discharge.
That changes for those with more than six years of service, who “will be processed with the least favorable characterization of service, being general, under honorable conditions, barring other misconduct,” he added.
Overall, about 90 percent of the active-duty military are vaccinated, a number that drops to just 75 percent when the National Guard and Reserves are factored in, signaling a tough road ahead for DoD as it moves to get the entire force vaccinated.
The services are all facing the removal of thousands of troops from its rosters for refusing the vaccine, a process that will likely take months and impact each service in different ways. The Marine Corps says about 95 percent of its 186,000-strong force has had at least one shot, which means roughly 10,000 continue to refuse.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger was blunt in speaking with reporters during a roundtable at the Reagan National Defense Forum this month, saying “we’re not bluffing” in enforcing the order and removing Marines who refuse their shots.
The vaccine mandate is “a direct order,” Berger said. “It’s not one any of the services made up. If you could rewind the clock and remove all the political football of it a year ago, I’d love to find a way to do that. But we can’t.”
Berger thinks that “most Marines will still get vaccinated. They’re past the deadline, but I think eventually, once they see [someone] get separated, the rest will go, ‘Okay. They’re serious.’”
One DoD official, speaking anonymously to comment on a sensitive issue, said the situation is the same for the Army. “I think it’s fair to say we are probably going to see some people leave the Army as a result of the vaccine mandate, because there are some people who just feel very strongly that they don’t want to take it.”
The Army is expected to release their way forward for separating vaccine refusers later Wednesday, a DoD official told POLITICO.
Asked when the Marine Corps would release its separation policy, spokesperson Capt. Ryan Bruce said Tuesday that because “each case will be handled on a case by case basis, there is no uniform, service-wide timeline associated with completing the administrative separation process.”
“All unvaccinated Marines without a pending or approved administrative exemption, medical exemption, or religious accommodation, or appeal, will be processed for administrative separation,” he said.
The deadline for Air Force members to be vaccinated was Nov. 2, while Navy and Marine Corps members were ordered to get the vaccine by Nov. 28. The cutoff date for Army members is Wednesday, and Army National Guard and Reserve members have until June 30 to receive their shots.
The Air Force was the first service to start the process of removing service members, separating 27 active-duty airmen this week.
Those 27 were part of the roughly 3,200 airmen across active duty, National Guard and Reserve to have refused the vaccine, while another 10,500 have sought religious exemptions. No religious exemptions have been granted in any service to date.
The Navy is still considering about 2,700 religious exemptions, and Waters said any sailor who has their exemption request denied has five days to get their first shot, or the separation process would begin.
Like the Navy, the airmen being processed for removal will receive either honorable discharges or general discharges under honorable conditions.
Dismissals become a political punching bag
Still, Republican lawmakers have expressed fresh outrage over the Defense Department’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate following the Air Force dismissals.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said President Joe Biden has “little regard for the impact his mandate would have on our military’s readiness.”
“The last thing our military needs right now is to be losing servicemen because of an overbearing and unnecessary vaccine mandate that never should have been issued in the first place,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) — the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee — reiterated his call for the Pentagon to “suspend the vaccine mandate until the Department of Defense can answer basic questions about the impact the mandate will have on the total force.”
In a statement Tuesday, Inhofe also invoked a federal judge’s ruling last week that blocked the Biden administration from enforcing a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for employees of federal contractors.
Following that decision, the Pentagon last week put a temporary halt on enforcement of Biden’s executive order, which requires vaccination as a condition for working with the government.
“We’re already seeing how the government is backing off enforcement of the mandate for everyone from defense contractors to Amtrak employees — the Department of Defense should likewise hold off on these permanent separations until they at least answer my questions,” Inhofe said.
“In the meantime,” he continued, “I am glad the [National Defense Authorization Act] prevents service members from being dishonorably discharged because of this mandate, and I’m eager to see this bill signed into law as soon as the Senate votes to send it to the president.”
Inhofe was referring to a proposed amendment to the Senate’s version of the defense policy bill, which would prohibit the Pentagon from giving service members who refuse the Covid-19 vaccine a dishonorable discharge.
Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), a former Army doctor who authored the measure, said in a statement Tuesday that service members who decide not to get vaccinated “do not deserve a dishonorable discharge for choosing against the vaccine.”
A dishonorable discharge, he argued, “treats our heroes as felons and our American heroes deserve better. I look forward to the NDAA being brought to a vote in the Senate which includes my amendment to provide these [service members] with retroactive protection if they were dishonorably discharged.”
“It’s shameful that President Biden wants to punish members of our military simply because they are uncomfortable taking a vaccine,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) added in a statement.
Despite the attacks from Republican lawmakers, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby suggested Wednesday that no service members would be dishonorably discharged for refusing the Covid-19 vaccine.
Asked about vaccine-related separations across the military, he stressed that “each service is going to handle this their own way.”
“One result could be administrative discharge, like the Air Force is doing,” Kirby told MSNBC. “Now, there’s been a lot of talk about dishonorable discharge. You don’t get that unless you go to court-martial. So we’re talking about administrative discharges that don’t result in some sort of dishonorable discharge or some punitive problem.”
Kirby also noted that this year alone, the service “has administratively separated 1,800 airmen for reasons not related to Covid. So this is not a big number, and it’s not a significant chunk of the Air Force personnel.”