Nearly 100 Deaths, Half a Million Cases: The Toll from 3 Years of the Coronavirus Pandemic on the Military

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Entry-level Marines form a line for COVID-19 vaccinations at Camp Johnson
Entry-level Marines with Personnel Administration School, Marine Corps Combat Service Support Schools, form a line for COVID-19 vaccinations at Camp Johnson, N.C., July 22, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Chandler Wilbourn)

In the three years since the first U.S. service member died from COVID-19, the pandemic has taken nearly 100 U.S. troops, from those who were called up to respond to the national emergency to National Guard members securing the border in Texas and sailors out on the high seas.

Tuesday marks the three-year anniversary since Capt. Douglas Hickok, a physician assistant with the New Jersey Army National Guard, died after a week-long battle with the coronavirus, the first American service member to succumb to the illness. Since then, at least 450,000 troops have been formally diagnosed with the virus and nearly 100 have died, although data from the Defense Department and the military services conflict on the exact number.

Hickok perished roughly two weeks after then-President Donald Trump declared a national emergency for the coronavirus. He had fallen ill after attending a conference.

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According to Pentagon data last updated Dec. 6, 2022, 96 U.S. service members died from COVID-19. Records kept by the services, however, show that at least 99 have died -- including 64 soldiers, 16 airmen and 17 sailors. At least two Marines have died as well, according to a database of fatalities reported by the services that is maintained by Military.com.

The Marine Corps did not respond to a request for the exact number of coronavirus deaths among its members.

Regardless of the exact number, those who died hailed from at least five different countries -- the Philippines, Somalia, Macedonia and elsewhere -- and at least 25 states, with Southern states that house some of the largest military installations and are home to a significant number of reservists bearing the brunt of the deaths. Two states in particular, Florida and Texas, top the list.

The youngest to die was an unnamed Army private with the 795th Military Police Battalion at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, according to the service; the oldest was Army Reserve Spc. Curtis Lamar Fort, 61, a pastor from Virginia who died several months into the pandemic on July 30, 2020.

The unnamed private was also the most junior member to die, while the highest-ranking included Army Col. Charles Rambo, 51, and Navy Capt. Corby Ropp, 48.

Rambo left behind six children, ages 4 to 17. "He cared for those on the team and their families, as much as he cared for the mission," said his colleague, Army civil servant Jay Gallego, during a memorial service, according to an Army article in the Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, base paper.

Of those who have been publicly identified, three were women: Army Sgt. 1st Class Lisa Maria Soto, who died early in 2021 in Hopewell, Virginia; and Personnel Specialist 1st Class Debrielle Richardson, 29, and Lt. Ivy Quintana-Martinez, 35, both members of the Navy Reserve who also died in 2021.

Perhaps because they lived in their communities and were not subject to base restrictions, reserve and National Guard members made up a majority of the DoD's COVID-19 deaths, with the Army National Guard having the most at 24, followed closely by the Army Reserve, with 23.

At least two Army National Guard members -- Spc. Michael Razvillas, 44, and Sgt. Kellice Armstrong, 49 – died while serving with Task Force South on the U.S.-Mexico border mission, while a third died with Task Force South while conducting COVID-19 response operations.

The Navy Reserve and Air National Guard also saw a significant number of deaths, with more than 15 between the two components.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin mandated COVID-19 vaccines for all service members on Aug. 24, 2021, resulting in the immunization of 2 million U.S. service members. And for months after the order, DoD officials reported that no fully vaccinated troops had died from COVID-19.

By December, however, officials said at least one fully vaccinated service member of the 52 who died in the latter half of the year was killed by the virus. At the time, DoD officials said that, without the vaccine, the Delta variant surge would have been more deadly to troops and families. Nonetheless, more than 57% of the military deaths from COVID-19 in 2021 occurred in the second half of the year, as Delta cases surged.

More than 8,000 service members refused the vaccine and were discharged from the military. Efforts are underway among some Republican members of Congress to reinstate those members and award them back pay.

While the DoD canceled the vaccine mandate earlier this year as a result of a congressional requirement, officials said the department has no plans to reinstate service members or pay them for time lost.

"We are not pursuing, as a matter of policy, back pay for those who refused the vaccine," Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said at a briefing in January. "At the time that those orders were refused, it was a lawful order."

According to the services and the Defense Department, no U.S. service members have died from COVID in 2023. The last recorded death, disclosed by the Pentagon late last year, was an unidentified National Guard member whose death was announced in November 2022.

Across the United States, cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations continue to dwindle, although roughly 2,000 Americans continue to die each week. Since the start of the pandemic, 1.2 million people in the U.S. have died of the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while more than 6.8 million have died worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

The number of cases recorded in the defense health system since the start of the pandemic was 740,942, with 6,587 hospitalized, including U.S. service members, dependents, civilian employees and contractors. More than 690 have died.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com.

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