U.S. Navy Begins Discharge Process for Sailors Who Refuse Vaccine

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Published Nov 16, 2021 7:58 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy has published its guidelines for separating the small minority of servicemembers who fail to complete a course of COVID-19 vaccination, and the penalties could include loss of significant veterans' benefits.

The Navy's vaccination rate currently stands at about 95 percent (more than 99 percent when including those with their first shot), and the deadline for compliance has been a long time coming. The DOD-wide vaccine mandate was announced in August, and November 14 was the last date to get a second shot in order to meet the Navy's deadline.

The Navy is still reviewing medical and religious vaccine exemption requests, but the odds are not favorable: as of early November, the service had approved a total of five medical exemptions and zero religious exemptions for its force of about 340,000 active duty personnel. When a sailor's exemption request is turned down, the individual must start vaccination within five days or face discharge. 

Vaccine mandates are politically controversial in civilian life, but vaccination is a centuries-old policy in the U.S. military, dating back to the Revolutionary War. U.S. Navy recruits already receive a long list of vaccinations during the accession process, including the special-purpose adenovirus and yellow fever vaccines, which are rarely provided to the general population. 

The U.S. Navy has a particular interest in adding the COVID-19 vaccine to this existing list of requirements. The sailors deployed on its ships and submarines live together in cramped conditions for weeks or months, and an outbreak on board can disrupt operations, with implications for national defense. The Navy sustained the largest single outbreak of COVID of any of the service branches - the well-publicized 2020 incident aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which resulted in the first recorded COVID fatality in the military - and it has had to implement rigorous (and costly) quarantine measures to keep the disease off its ships. Its leadership hopes that 100-percent vaccination will finally bring an end to these operational risks - and it is willing to take strict measures to achieve that goal. 

"In order to ensure a fully vaccinated force, it is U.S. Navy policy to separate all Navy service members who refuse the lawful order to receive the COVID-19 vaccination," chief of naval personnel Vice Adm. John B. Nowell, Jr. wrote in a service-wide message on Monday. "Commands should start preparing for administrative separations for any Navy service members refusing the vaccine in their ranks."

Within thirty days after a servicemember refuses the vaccine, their command must issue adverse fitness reports, triggering a sequence of consequences. Any promotion opportunities will be put on hold, and any not-yet-finalized ("frocked") promotions will be revoked immediately. Spot-promoted officers will be removed from their billets. 

Refusing the vaccine also results in the servicemember no longer being eligible to re-enlist, and any pending agreements will be canceled. Permanent change of station moves will be refused. Bonuses and incentive pay will be canceled, and prepaid incentive pay - like career retention bonuses, enlistment bonuses, flight pay or dive pay - will have to be repaid to the Navy. 

Affected U.S. Naval Academy and Navy ROTC grads may have to repay a part of their education costs for failing to complete their required term of service. Other personnel who received specialized training may also have to pay the Navy back for the cost of their classes.

In addition, vaccine refusal has a broad impact on servicemember education programs, including losing eligibility for Tuition Assistance (TA) and the Department of Defense's Skillbridge training program for transitioning service members. Those using TA will either lose command approval for upcoming classes or be withdrawn from classes that have already started.

Personnel who are separated will likely receive a General (under honorable conditions) discharge. Veterans with this discharge status are not usually eligible for GI Bill education benefits, which require Honorable Discharge status, and the Navy made note of this in its warning. However, they will still qualify for all VA health care benefits, pension programs, federal hiring preference points and many other support programs.