NORFOLK, Va. — The Navy is beginning the process of removing sailors who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccinations.
The service released formal guidance to commanders on Wednesday on how to proceed with what it calls "administrative separations."
Unvaccinated officers and enlisted sailors who are eligible to retire or leave the service before June 1, 2022, can do so with an honorable discharge.
Those who aren't eligible to leave will undergo separation processing, on the basis of misconduct for refusing the lawful order to be vaccinated. But they will still receive an honorable discharge as well.
A total of 336,000 sailors are vaccinated. But, 5,700 have refused to get a COVID-19 shot.
"Let me be clear upfront: We want every sailor to receive the vaccine and stay Navy, and if a sailor gets their shot, we will honor that and make every effort to retain them," said Rear Adm. James Waters III, Director, Military Personnel Plans and Policy Division. "On the other hand, those who continue to refuse the vaccine will be required to leave the Navy."
Those who fail to receive a COVID-19 vaccine exemption will lose out on education benefits, promotions and bonus pay.
A general discharge could result in the loss of eligibility for some VA benefits such as the GI Bill, to include the transfer of GI Bill benefits to dependents.
So far, seven permanent medical exemptions have been approved.
No religious exemptions have been ok'd, even though 2,705 active-duty sailors put in requests for one.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) said it is "unfortunate," "sad" and "tragic" that so many sailors, for whatever reason, have refused to get the vaccine.
He acknowledges their departures could have an impact on readiness.
But Kaine said the separations are necessary.
"Nobody works in closer quarters than sailors," he said. "I mean, submarines, surface ships. Nobody works in closer quarters than these folks."
According to the Navy, there have been more than 50,000 cases of COVID-19 among the active force, and 16 sailors have died.
Last year, the USS Theodore Roosevelt was sidelined for 55 days as the aircraft carrier dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak.