Navy to Start Ejecting Unvaccinated Sailors

Sailors can decide to get vaccinated at any point in the process to be retained.

The Navy will start processing unvaccinated active-duty sailors for separation under a new policy guidance released Wednesday. Thousands of sailors risk ending their career’s early and repaying bonuses and education fees for failing to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by the end of November.

“We want every sailor to receive the vaccine and stay Navy. And 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.”

Wednesday’s guidance comes two weeks after the Navy’s COVID-19 vaccine deadline for active-duty sailors. As of Dec. 9, the Navy has 5,731 sailors who remain unvaccinated, representing 1.6 percent of the active-duty force. Of the unvaccinated, 326 have temporary medical exemptions and seven have a permanent medical exemption. The service received 2,705 religious accommodation requests but has not approved any of them.

The Air Force recently separated 27 people for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine after passing its Nov. 2 deadline for active-duty airmen. All were in their first term of enlistment, the Associated Press reported.

The Navy’s COVID-19 Consolidated Disposition Authority is the Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell. He oversees each case where a sailor has requested an exemption from the policy or has outright refused to receive the vaccine. Active-duty sailors who decide now to receive the vaccine following the Nov. 28 deadline must notify their command who then informs the disposition authority who can pause and later stop the separation process. From there, the authority will determine what actions to take against the sailor based on the circumstances of their case.

Sailors who are refusing to get the vaccine generally fall into two categories: those with a deeply held religious belief against vaccination or a general sense that the COVID-19 vaccine is not safe, Fleet Master Chief Wes Koshoffer from MyNavyHR said, citing discussions he’s had with sailors. The Navy is not formally collecting any information on why people are refusing the vaccine outside of a request for a religious or medical exemption, said Capt. Dave Hecht, a spokesman for the chief of naval personnel.

The Navy’s goal is to have a fully vaccinated force as soon as possible, Waters said, with the understanding that those with approved exemptions will remain unvaccinated. Depending on their time in service, unvaccinated active-duty officers and enlisted sailors without an exemption face different options for how their separation will be processed. Sailors who will be eligible to retire before June 1 will be allowed to do so through an expedited process. Those not eligible for retirement before June 1 will undergo separation due to misconduct for refusing a lawful order to be vaccinated, he said.

Officers and enlisted sailors who are eligible for a separation board will be allowed to waive the board in exchange for an honorable discharge. Sailors who are separated will also have to repay unfulfilled obligations like bonuses and education.

Waters expects most of the separation process to last until around June 1 because of the retirement window for eligible sailors, but they will try to expedite the process where they can. He acknowledged that some cases may be extended past that date due to the administrative process.

“Part of that is also to minimize the number [of unvaccinated] as quickly as possible. And so that also reduces the potential for adverse health effects within the force,” he said.