Navy COVID-19 Separations Pass 800 as Service Pushes Toward Fully Vaxxed Operational Force

April 14, 2022 2:53 PM
Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Jacob Keeton verifies a COVID-19 vaccination card aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) on March 23, 2022. US Navy Photo

The Navy separated 41 sailors over the past week, as the sea service continues to move toward a fully vaccinated operational force.

The Navy has so far separated 804 sailors; the vast majority of them were active-duty. In the past week, 39 active-duty sailors were separated, bringing the total to 753, not including the 22 sailors separated in their first 180 days.

Two reservists were also separated in the past week, which brings the total number of reservists separated to 27.

The two branches under the Department of the Navy have the most COVID-19 vaccine-related separations in the Department of Defense. The Marine Corps has separated a total of 1,787 Marines, which means 193 Marines were separated in the past week, according to the service’s COVID-19 update, which will now be published monthly.

The Air Force has separated 261 airmen, according to the service’s most recent COVID-19 update. The branch leads the others in terms of religious exemptions, approving 42 and denying 5,129 requests and 1,692 ones on appeal.

The Army had not published its weekly COVID-19 update, as of 2:30 p.m. Thursday.

The Navy recently halted separations for any sailor that submitted a religious exemption after a federal judge in Texas granted a class action motion in the case of 26 Navy SEALs suing Department of Defense officials over the COVID-19 vaccine mandate due to their religious objections.

The class action lawsuit extends to 4,095 sailors, USNI News previously reported. Although the Marine Corps is under the Department of the Navy, the lawsuit does not cover any Marines.

However, the Navy had been separating sailors who were denied religious exemptions, Lt. Travis Callaghan, a spokesperson for the chief of naval personnel, said in an email.

As of March 24, 169 separations were sailors who submitted religious waiver requests and were denied, Callaghan said in his email. It is not clear what happens to those already separated before the class action motion was granted.

“In light of the recent class-wide injunction issued by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, we are working with the Department of Defense and Department of Justice to determine the scope and impact on those individuals,” he said in the email.

Currently, the Navy cannot dismiss any sailor with a religious exemption request for refusing the COVID-19 vaccination. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the sea service can use vaccination status as a factor when making personnel changes, USNI News previously reported.

The Navy has approved 10 religious exemption requests for members of the Individual Ready Reserve on the condition that they get vaccinated if called up to active or reserve status. Another 27 sailors received conditional religious waivers since the sailors were transitioning out of the Navy.

Under the class action, those 27 sailors can now stay in the Navy, USNI News previously reported.

The Supreme Court decision, while made in the case of the Navy SEALS, is already affecting the case of the commanding officer of a guided-missile destroyer who is a plaintiff in another lawsuit suing DOD officials over the vaccine mandate.

The Navy wants to remove the commanding officer because he is not vaccinated, but there is a temporary protection order in place preventing any adverse action. The Navy, in turn, will not deploy his ship due to a lack of confidence, though it has been underway for training.

Under the Supreme Court ruling, the commanding officer’s vaccination status could allow the Navy to remove him from his position, as long as he was not dismissed from the service. Capt. Frank Brandon, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 26, wrote in his declarations that he lost trust in the commanding officer due to his inability to follow a lawful order.

“Specifically, the Navy is forced to leave an insubordinate officer with poor judgment and a lack of concern for the health and welfare of his crew of over 300 sailors in charge of a nearly 10,000-ton warship — armed with missiles, torpedoes, a mounted naval artillery gun, and other powerful ordnance — that could be called to respond to a national security crisis,” Brandon wrote in a declaration on Feb. 4.

In another declaration, dated Feb. 9, Brandon raised concerns about the commanding officer not getting tested for COVID-19 despite displaying symptoms and taking leave to testify in his case without permission.

The officer’s attorneys have submitted their response to the Supreme Court ruling, arguing that the temporary protection order still applies in full as it is more narrow than the Supreme Court ruling and therefore should continue to protect against adverse action. The attorneys for the Department of Defense have also filed a response, saying that the Supreme Court’s ruling, as well as a ruling in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals applying the Supreme Court ruling to the case, allows for the Navy to consider vaccination status in assignments.

The Navy has not announced any action concerning the commanding officer as of Thursday.

Sailors who are not vaccinated are not considered deployable and will not be assigned to operational units, Callaghan said in his email. It is not clear how many sailors were temporarily reassigned to non-operational roles after refusing the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Navy was processing 635 separations, as of March 24, Callaghan said.

“Because cases originate with individual commands and those cases may sometimes require additional local processes (administrative separation boards, etc) prior to forwarding to Navy Personnel Command, there are likely other cases not yet reported,” he said in the email.

For the average sailor, the separation process can take three months, although it depends on the specific situation, Callaghan said in his email.

Once the administrative process for separation is complete, commands get 10 days for notice and the sailors have 10 days to leave the Navy, he said.

The Navy has granted 13 permanent medical and 246 temporary medical exemptions for active-duty sailors. The sea service granted one permanent and 85 temporary medical exemptions for reservists.

There are 4,110 active-duty sailors and 3,277 reserve sailors who are not yet fully vaccinated, although these numbers include those who are in the process of getting vaccinated or have an exemption or pending one.

For the Marine Corps, 97 percent of active-duty Marines are fully vaccinated, with another 1 percent partially vaccinated. Reservists are 91 percent vaccinated with another 1 percent partially vaccinated.

The Marine Corps has approved seven religious exemptions and 947 medical or administrative ones.

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio is a reporter with USNI News. She has a master’s degree in science journalism and has covered local courts, crime, health, military affairs and the Naval Academy.
Follow @hmongilio

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