The Navy has officially stopped separating sailors who refuse the COVID vaccine, a fleetwide order that follows Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Jan. 10 directive to end the mandate.
In a Jan. 11 naval administrative message, Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Rick Cheeseman noted that all commands will “immediately discontinue administrative separation processing of Navy Service Members solely for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, including those with approved separation letters.”
The NAVADMIN also states that “all commands will immediately suspend any new adverse administrative actions associated with refusing the COVID-19 vaccine.”
More guidance regarding the policy shift will be sent in a future NAVADMIN, the message states.
The Navy had booted 1,639 active duty sailors and 402 Reserve sailors for refusing the vaccine as of Nov. 30, according to the Navy’s COVID page.
The Pentagon’s about-face on the COVID vaccine mandate is due to a provision in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act that directed Austin to rescind his 2021 memo mandating the vaccine for servicemembers.
“The Department will continue to promote and encourage COVID-19 vaccination for all Service members,” Austin wrote in a memo this month ending the mandate. “The Department has made COVID-19 vaccination as easy and convenient as possible, resulting in vaccines administered to over two million Service members and 96 percent of the force ― Active and Reserve ― being fully vaccinated.”
Overall, 96 active and reserve servicemembers died of COVID-19 complications from early 2020 to early 2022. Of those, 93 were unvaccinated.
Some lawmakers wanted troops who refused the vaccine to be reinstated with back pay, but such a provision did not end up in the final version of the defense bill, Military Times reported earlier this month.
Austin’s memo orders the services to remove any flags on the personnel records of troops who are not yet vaccinated and to rescind any letters of reprimand.
But unvaccinated troops could still be prohibited from taking on certain assignments or deployments, including when vaccination is required in a foreign nation, Austin wrote.
Those who received general discharges, under honorable conditions, for failing to obey orders to get vaccinated will be able to petition their service’s discharge review or records authorities to upgrade their discharge characterizations, Austin’s memo states.
Additional guidance will come from the Pentagon’s personnel chief.
“The Department’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts will leave a lasting legacy in the many lives we saved, the world-class Force we have been able to field, and the high level of readiness we have maintained, amidst difficult public health conditions,” Austin wrote.
Military Times reporter Meghann Myers contributed to this report.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.