Sailors and Marines now have 90 days to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk disobeying a lawful order, a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the maritime branches' top leaders said in a series of messages released Tuesday and Wednesday.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday, and Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger told their service members that they are ordering any sailor or Marine who has not received the shots to get them now.
"The order to obtain full vaccination is a lawful order," Gilday, the Navy's top officer, wrote in his message.
For sailors who refuse the shots, Del Toro's message lays out a series of steps the Navy will take to convince them to get vaccinated.
First, commands should "provide counseling regarding refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine [to] include access to a healthcare professional to answer questions regarding the risks of COVID-19 and the benefits of COVID-19 vaccinations," the message says. After that counseling, however, the person will receive a note in their service record ordering them to get vaccinated, the message adds.
Service members who remain unvaccinated after 90 days will be referred to the COVID Consolidated Disposition Authority, or CCDA, the message explains.
The new CCDA will decide what happens to sailors who refuse the vaccine. Although this new position will be able to use "the full range of administrative and disciplinary actions," Del Toro noted that "until further notice" he is not letting the CCDA start "non-judicial punishment, courts-martial, or administrative separation in cases of Navy Service Members refusing the vaccine."
For Marines, the process is a bit simpler: Get the shot or your commander will decide a punishment for failing to follow a lawful order.
Although the commandant's message did not specifically mention it, Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Andrew Wood noted that Marines will be offered the same access to medical professionals to answer their questions and concerns as their Navy counterparts.
To date, Military.com has reported on only one person who has been forced out of the service for violating COVID-related rules. A Marine corporal received a general discharge in late July 2021 after she refused to wear a face mask despite being unvaccinated.
According to the latest Department of Defense data, the Navy has fully vaccinated 85% of its sailors and the Corps has fully vaccinated 64% of all Marines.
The total number of COVID deaths in the military was at 40 as of Sept. 1, according to the DoD.
The mandatory vaccine policy marks a sharp departure from the previous approach to getting sailors and Marines vaccinated, which left it up to individual commanders. The result of that approach has been vaccination rates that vary widely between commands and services. To address lagging rates, some commands offered incentives such as four-day weekend passes for getting vaccinated. Meanwhile, some Navy commanders described reaching out to experts or doctors to assuage concerns individual sailors had over the vaccines.
Chaplain leaders in the Navy previously noted that they have seen a surge in interest over religious exemptions to the vaccine. While that avenue remains open to sailors and Marines, Capt. Richard Ryan, the chaplain overseeing the Pacific fleet, told Military.com last month that though chaplains in individual Navy commands will be charged with determining the sincerity of sailors' beliefs, the deputy chief of naval operations for manpower, personnel, training and education ultimately will decide who gets an exemption and who doesn't.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.