As many as 19,000 active-duty Marines and Navy sailors chose not to get vaccinated against the coronavirus by their shared Nov. 28 deadline, a dilemma for military leaders who have threatened to expel personnel refusing to comply with the Biden administration’s mandate.
In both services, the number of holdouts is around 9,500, according to official counts. And while the Marines' margin of 5 percent unvaccinated had been anticipated, it was an unexpected outcome for the Navy, which in announcing its final tally this week acknowledged that officials had uncovered last-minute "discrepancies" with its data-tracking system that revealed a larger pool of unvaccinated sailors than had been projected. As recently as last week, official data showed that 99.8 percent of sailors had at least one shot by last Sunday's deadline. The true number is just over 97 percent.
These personnel now join more than 8,000 in the Air Force who declined to get vaccinated. In all three services, many are awaiting decisions on exemption requests, though officials have emphasized the number of permanent waivers granted was likely to be nominal. Army data shows four percent of its active force - about 19,000 soldiers - have not received any vaccine dose, with the compliance deadline of Dec. 15 now less than two weeks away.
While, overall, the vast majority of service members have complied with the Pentagon's vaccination mandate, even a few percent of the military's 2.1 million troops translates to tens of thousands of people. Officials have said that those who are unvaccinated are not deployable, underscoring the challenge ahead not only for unit-level commanders facing workforce challenges, but for senior officials in Washington and beyond responsible for setting the U.S. military's priorities and maintaining an adequate presence across the world.
David Lapan, a retired Marine Corps officer and former communications chief for the service, said the Navy and Marine Corps must pursue answers as to why the order, issued in August by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the behest of President Joe Biden, was rejected by thousands of service members, and whether failures in education, communication or leadership - or all three - are to blame.
Individuals avoiding the vaccine "may have a deleterious effect on a unit as a whole," Lapan said, pointing to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which last year was forced to go completely offline when hundreds of sailors became infected while the aircraft carrier and its crew were deployed in the Pacific.
In some cases, such as when personnel have haircuts that flout regulations or when their barracks rooms are unkempt, the defiance of lawful orders can be minor and affect few others, Lapan said. "It can get worse if the stakes are bigger," he said. "And with covid, it's bigger."
For comparison, the combined number of unvaccinated sailors and Marines is the equivalent of about four modern aircraft carrier crews. The Marine Corps falls under the Navy Department, and their personnel routinely operate together in close enclosed spaces at sea, where the virus can easily spread. Both services are poised to become centerpieces in the Pentagon's focus on China through expanded missions across the Indo-Pacific region.
Capt. Andrew Wood, a Marine Corps spokesperson, said the service had granted nearly 800 temporary exemptions, some of which are medical waivers given when vaccines are not currently recommended - like for people who are pregnant or currently infected - and just 14 permanent medical exemptions.
Thousands of Marines in the unvaccinated population are uncategorized, Wood said, which means their status has not been reported. It also includes recruits and officers in initial training who haven't yet been vaccinated or haven't made it to that stage in the process. The number of outright refusals is too "fluid" to release now, Wood said, but appears to be concentrated among the most common ranks in the Corps - privates, corporals and sergeants.
"Marines pride themselves on being a ready force," Wood said. "We don't quite yet have a solid understanding of how many Marines are going to be administrative separated, or the impacts on readiness."
Officials are optimistic that, even though thousands missed their deadlines to be immunized, compliance numbers will improve as waiver requests are denied - forcing the hands of those who had hoped to avoid the vaccine but ultimately are unwilling to sacrifice their military careers.
Temporary exemptions in the Navy exceed 500, according to official data, with seven permanent medical exemptions. Commanders are gathering cases of outright refusals, and that number should be clearer within a week or two, said Lt. Cmdr. Andrew DeGarmo, a Navy spokesperson.
"While there is no short-term impact to readiness due to unvaccinated sailors, we are constantly evaluating the long-term impact to the force," DeGarmo said. "The health and safety of the force is our top priority to sustain mission readiness."
Some leaders have expressed confidence that the vaccine refusers are well distributed and not concentrated in one community or another, like pilots or engineers. If true, that would lessen the severity of their losses, said a Navy official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the service's ongoing evaluation.
Thousands of troops have filed religious exemptions across the Defense Department, but none have been approved so far, according to defense officials. The Navy and Marine Corps have not approved any religious waivers for any vaccine for the last 7 and 10 years, respectively.
The Marine Corps is the Defense Department's least-vaccinated service. Marines who were not fully vaccinated by Sunday or did not have a pending exemption request soon will face administrative separation, Wood said. Commanders could punish but still retain some based on personal circumstances, such as a Marine who missed the deadline but now is on a path to becoming fully vaccinated.
A senior commander, typically a one-star general, will decide who is separated or retained, Wood said, noting that senior officials recognize the reality the service needs experienced, trained Marines ready to deploy at any moment. The deadline has not ended the push to get more vaccinations, he said.
"There are no Marines we are trying to throw away," Wood said. "We're a small force already."
While the Navy showed potential to achieve the highest vaccination rate in the military, including reports last week of reaching 99.8 percent of sailors with one shot, the service acknowledged errors in their reports. Those discrepancies, including redundant entries, were "appropriately corrected," DeGarmo said in a statement. "We strive to provide the most accurate and timely information to maintain transparency regarding the Navy's effort to fight covid-19."
The Navy has established some of the most stringent timelines for separation due to vaccine refusal. Sailors must start vaccination within five days in cases of denied exemptions, the Navy said last month.
Marines and sailors separated for vaccine refusal will receive general discharges under honorable conditions, barring other circumstances, according to official guidance. That status forbids access to some veterans benefits like the GI Bill, leaving lasting consequences for troops who decide to exit the service over the mandate.
Austin on Tuesday outlined updated vaccine regulations specifically for National Guard members, including the loss of pay, training opportunities and eventually their military careers if they do not comply.
The memo was an apparent warning shot from the Biden administration to Republican governors looking to defy federal mandates, with particular focus on Oklahoma, where Gov. Kevin Stitt, R, last month ordered a policy allowing Guard members to forgo the vaccine while under state command if they desired. On Thursday, Stitt sued the administration, saying that while personnel are under state command, he has the authority to determine “if and how training guidelines issued by the president will be implemented.”