Military weighs penalties for those who refuse COVID vaccine

Nov 1, 2021, 1:01 PM
FILE: Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on t...
FILE: Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan at the Rayburn House Office building on Capitol Hill on Sept. 29, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images)
(Photo by Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (AP) — As deadlines loom for military and defense civilians to get mandated COVID-19 vaccines, senior leaders must now wrestle with the fate of those who flatly refuse the shots or are seeking exemptions, and how to make sure they are treated fairly and equally.

The vast majority of the active duty force has received at least one shot, but tens of thousands have not. For some it may be a career-ending decision. Others could face transfers, travel restrictions, limits on deployments and requirements to repay bonuses.

Exemption decisions for medical, religious and administrative reasons will be made by unit commanders around the world, on what the Pentagon says will be a “case-by-case” basis. That raises a vexing issue for military leaders who are pushing a vaccine mandate seen as critical to maintaining a healthy force, but want to avoid a haphazard, inconsistent approach with those who refuse.

Brig. Gen. Darrin Cox, surgeon general at Army Forces Command, said commanders want to ensure they are following the rules.

“Because of some of the sensitivities of this particular vaccine, I think that we just wanted to ensure that we were consistent and equitable” in meting out a punishment that would be “a repercussion of continuing to refuse a valid order.”

Military vaccination rates are higher than those of the general population in the United States and the reasons for objecting – often based on misinformation – are similar to those heard throughout the country. But unlike most civilians, military personnel are routinely required to get as many as 17 vaccines, and face penalties for refusing.

The military services are reporting between 1%-7% remain unvaccinated. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has called for compassion in dealings with those troops, which totals nearly 60,000 active duty service members, according to data released last week. Officials say the numbers change daily, and include those who may have gotten or requested an exemption. They have declined to say how many troops are still seeking an exemption or refused the vaccine.

Asked about possible variations in the treatment of those seeking exemptions or refusing the vaccine, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said it’s up to the services. “Each case is going to be treated specifically and individually as it ought to be,” he said.

It unclear how widely religious exemptions will be granted. Under military rules, commanders can take into account the potential impact on a unit’s mission, and reject a religious exemption if it puts performance at risk.

Commanders can also move service members into another job, deny them overseas deployment or limit unit access if they get an exemption or while a request is being reviewed. Those steps may be more common in smaller units such a special operations forces who usually deploy in small numbers.

The Navy has warned that sailors who refuse the shot and don’t get an exemption may have to refund bonuses and other financial payments, based on existing military justice procedures for disobeying a lawful order. The other services are expected to follow similar procedures.

Unvaccinated troops will also be subject to routine testing, distancing guidelines and possibly travel restrictions.

The Air Force may be the test case in some instances, because they are the first to hit a deadline. The more than 335,000 airmen and Space Force guardians must be fully vaccinated by Tuesday, and the Air Guard and Reserve by Dec. 2. According to Air Force data, as many as 12,000 active duty airmen and guardians were still unvaccinated as of late last week. Some have requested or gotten exemptions, others have refused outright. They have until Monday to request exemptions.

Air Force Col. Robert Corby, commander of the 28th Medical Group at Ellsworth Air Force Base, said that after the vaccine became mandatory in late August, appointments for shots at the base clinic doubled. He said troops have an array of questions and concerns, and commanders, chaplains and medical personnel are providing information.

“I think you also have a segment of the population that probably does not feel that they are really at risk for COVID-19,” he added.

Air Force Capt. Molly Lawlor, 28th Bomb Wing chaplain, said a “very small percentage” are seeking a religious exemption at the base. “People are just trying to figure out how this new requirement fits into their belief system and the decisions that they want to make,” she said.

The more than 765,000 Defense Department civilians will be close behind the Air Force, with a mandated vaccine date of Nov. 22. Supervisors are grappling with the complex task of checking and recording the vaccine status of their workers, and determining who will be the final exemption arbiter.

Civilians have until Nov. 8 to seek an exemption, and as of last week, fewer than half had provided vaccination proof. Those who refuse the vaccine and don’t get an exemption will get five days for counseling. If they still refuse, they will be suspended for up to 14 days without pay, and could then be fired.

Vaccination numbers fluctuate for the military services, and drop off considerably for the National Guard and Reserve.

A bit more than half of the Army National Guard has gotten at least one shot, while the Air Guard is at 87%. Air Guard members must be fully vaccinated by early December, while the Army Guard, which is much larger and more widely scattered around the country, has until June,.

The most successful service has been the Navy, which says that only 1% of the force is unvaccinated as of last week — or about 3,500 sailors. The Air Force and Space Force was second, with 3.6% unvaccinated, followed by the Army and Marine Corps at about 7%.

Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, told The Associated Press that even before the shots were mandated, some warships were seeing vaccination rates of 98%-99%.

“We feel like we’ve been leading the way across the services,” he said. “We’ve been promoting the vaccines since we started vaccinating last December, January timeframe.” For those who don’t want the vaccine, “we’ll deal with those on an individual basis as those challenges come up,” he said.

Marine Col. Speros Koumparakis, commander of Marine Corps Base Hawaii, said that the number of Marines who have requested exemptions at the base is fewer than two dozen, and most of those are seeking religious exemptions.

He said chaplains and pastors have been made available to discuss the religious issues, and he does the initial review of any request. But ultimately, decisions may be made by personnel leaders at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.

The nearly 350,000 Navy sailors and more than 179,000 Marines must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 28, and the reserves by Dec. 28. The Army, the military’s largest service at nearly 490,000, has given active duty soldiers until Dec. 15 to be fully vaccinated. Army National Guard and Reserve have until June 30, 2022. There are a total of almost 800,000 Guard and Reserve troops, with the Army accounting for more than 520,000 of them.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories


RSV and flu...
Deidre McPhillips, CNN

Flu season intensifies, holiday gatherings could make it worse

Americans gathered for Thanksgiving last week amid a flu season that's worse than any has been in more than a decade, and experts continue to urge caution as multiple respiratory viruses circulate at high levels nationwide.
22 hours ago
Protesters hold up blank papers and chant slogans as they march in protest in Beijing, Sunday, Nov....
Jessie Yeung and CNN's Beijing bureau

Rare protests are spreading across China. Here’s what you need to know

From Shanghai to Beijing, protests have erupted across China in a rare show of dissent against the ruling Communist Party.
22 hours ago
Police officers block Shanghai's Urumqi Road on Sunday. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)...
CNN's Beijing bureau and Nectar Gan

Protests erupt across China in unprecedented challenge to Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy

Protests erupted across China throughout the weekend, including at universities and in Shanghai where hundreds chanted "Step down, Xi Jinping! Step down, Communist Party!"
2 days ago
Salt Lake City Police at the University of Utah Hospital due to a possible bomb threat. (Salt Lake ...
Michael Houck

Police: Unattended bag led to bomb squad response at U of U Hospital

Salt Lake City Police responded to a possible bomb threat at the University of Utah hospital Tuesday afternoon.
14 days ago
Elizabeth Cohen and Naomi Thomas, CNN

COVID-19 medicine for immunocompromised patients is losing effectiveness

Judy Salins considers herself a smart, empowered patient, but until this week, she had no idea that the medicine she takes to defend herself against Covid-19 isn't protecting her as well as it used to.
18 days ago
Paxlovid, the antiviral pill that reduces the risk of hospitalization and death from Covid-19, also...
Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

Paxlovid reduces risk of long Covid, Veterans Affairs study finds

Paxlovid, the antiviral pill that reduces the risk of hospitalization and death from Covid-19, also reduces the risk of long Covid, according to a new study by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
23 days ago

Sponsored Articles

house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 reasons you may want to consider apartment life over owning a home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to choose what MBA program is right for you: Take this quiz before you apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Diverse Group of Energetic Professionals Team Meeting in Modern Office: Brainstorming IT Programmer...
Les Olson

Don’t let a ransomware attack get you down | Protect your workplace today with cyber insurance

Business owners and operators should be on guard to protect their workplace. Cyber insurance can protect you from online attacks.
Hand turning a thermostat knob to increase savings by decreasing energy consumption. Composite imag...
Lighting Design

5 Lighting Tips to Save Energy and Money in Your Home

Advances in lighting technology make it easier to use smart features to cut costs. Read for tips to save energy by using different lighting strategies in your home.
Portrait of smiling practitioner with multi-ethnic senior people...
Summit Vista

How retirement communities help with healthy aging

There are many benefits that retirement communities contribute to healthy aging. Learn more about how it can enhance your life, or the life of your loved ones.
Military weighs penalties for those who refuse COVID vaccine