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Vaccine compliance has been challenge for U.S. military leaders in 2021

For the Navy, some 336,000 sailors have been vaccinated, but more than 5,700 still are not.

WASHINGTON — One of the biggest stories of 2021 has been how the pandemic has impacted the United States military.

Specifically, the challenge military leaders have faced getting shots into troops' arms.

By late December, the vast majority of personnel had rolled up their sleeves and gotten COVID-19 vaccinations.

But there still were thousands of hold-outs.

According to the Department of Defense website, as of last week, roughly 98% of the active-duty U.S. military force had received the COVID-19 vaccine, with more than 6.6 million doses administered and more than 1.5 million active-duty troops fully vaccinated.

But, approximately 35,000 members of the Army, Marines, Air Force, Space Force and the Navy were still considered unvaccinated.

"The Secretary has made it clear that this is a lawful order to receive this vaccine," said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby in a news conference earlier this month. "It's mandatory now. "

For the Navy, some 336,000 sailors have been vaccinated, but more than 5,700 still were not.

Guidelines issued in December instructed commanders that unvaccinated personnel would be processed for separation and would be given honorable discharges.

Rear Admiral James Waters III, the Navy's the Director of Military Personnel Plans and Policy, said, "Let me be clear up front: We want every sailor to receive the vaccine and stay Navy. On the other hand, those who continue to refuse the vaccine will be required to leave the Navy."

Senate Armed Services Committee member Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) said it was "unfortunate," "sad" and "tragic" that so many sailors, for whatever reason, have refused to get the vaccine.

He acknowledged their departures could have an impact on readiness.

But Kaine said the separations were necessary.

"Nobody works in closer quarters than sailors," he said. "I mean, submarines, surface ships. Nobody works in closer quarters than these folks."

Naval Air Force Atlantic Chief of Staff, Capt. John Hewitt, told 13 News Now the Navy will follow specific protocols in dealing with sailors who refuse to comply.

"If they're not in compliance with a lawful order, we have the UCMJ and a chain of command that can deal with it," he said.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) agreed that action must be taken.

"I think there has to be consequences," he said. "This is not about simply personal rights. It's about, you may have personal rights, but those rights don't extend  to being a health hazard for folks that you work with."

Military-wide, there have been more than 261,000 cases of COVID-19.

Among uniformed personnel across all branches, there have been 82 COVID-19 deaths.

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