Defense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals

Defense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals
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It's Thursday, welcome to Overnight Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

The military services have begun to release guidance on how individuals will be discharged for refusing to follow a Pentagon mandate to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

We’ll break down the Navy’s specific guidance, where the service is with its vaccination rates and how that compares to the U.S. population. We’ll also discuss the Biden administration’s still-empty role to oversee ‘Havana syndrome’ cases and the Marine officer who pled guilty after criticizing the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. Write to me with tips: emitchell@thehill.com.

Let’s get to it.

House hearing highlights partisan divide on extremism

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., is seen from the East Front Plaza on Wednesday, September 22, 2021

All active-duty sailors who refuse to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 28 will face discharge, according to new Navy guidance released Thursday.

The guidance, which also sets a deadline for all Navy Reserve sailors to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 28, outlines the consequences for those who fail to comply. 

“Sailors must be prepared to execute their mission at all times, in places through out the world, including where vaccination rates are low and disease transmission is high,” according to the notice. “Immunizations are of paramount  importance to protecting the health of the force and the warfighting readiness of the Fleet.”

Some specifics: To meet the deadlines, active-duty sailors must receive their final dose of the vaccine by Nov. 14 while those in the Navy Reserve need their last shot by Dec. 14, giving individuals a two-week period for the dose to take full effect.

Navy personnel are allowed to request a vaccine exemption for medical or religious reasons.

Earlier: The guidance follows Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s order in late August for all service members and military personnel to “immediately begin” getting the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Currently, about 94 percent of active-duty sailors and 89 percent of the total force are fully immunized against coronavirus, while 94 percent of the total force have received at least one shot, according to Navy figures released Wednesday. 

A new authority: To separate sailors who refuse to comply with the mandatory policy, the Navy has formed the COVID Consolidated Disposition Authority (CCDA) to “ensure a fair and consistent process” in deciding how to handle a possible discharge. 

Naval Personnel head Vice Adm. John Nowell and Chief of Naval Reserve Vice Adm. John Mustin will oversee the new authority. 

Some repercussions: With the new guidelines in place, administrative actions can begin immediately against those who refuse the vaccine who do not have a pending or approved exemption request.

Those who refuse the vaccine will not be allowed to be promoted, advance, reenlist, or execute orders, with the exception of separation orders, until the CCDA has completed disposition of their case, the guidance notes.

Those separated for vaccine refusal could receive as low as a general discharge under honorable conditions, which could result in the loss of some veterans’ benefits.

A climbing death toll: Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, 14 active-duty sailors have died from the illness as have dozens more civilians and contractors.

“Tragically, there have been 164 deaths within the Navy family due to COVID-19, far exceeding the combined total of all other health or mishap related injuries and deaths over the same time period,” Nowell wrote.  

Of those, he noted, 144 were not immunized. The vaccination status of the remaining 20 is undetermined.  

Read more on that here.

BIDEN TOUTS PROGRESS ON VACCINATION BUT WARNS US IS IN ‘CRITICAL PERIOD’

President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE touted the United States’ progress in the pandemic in a Thursday address but cautioned the country is in a “critical period” as millions of Americans remain unvaccinated. 

In his speech, Biden expressed optimism about the momentum the U.S. has made against COVID-19, citing nationwide drops in cases and hospitalizations, but called on businesses to “step up” and back his vaccine requirements.

The larger population: The number of unvaccinated people also decreased from almost 100 million in July to about 66 million, he said, although noting that's “still unacceptably high.”

“That’s important progress, but ... now's not the time to let up,” he said. “We have a lot more to do. We're in a very critical period as we work to turn the corner on COVID-19.”

Read the full story here.

Blinken pressed to fill position overseeing ‘Havana syndrome’

Secretary of State <span class=Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden administration prepared to use 'other tools' on Iran amid troubled nuclear talks US intelligence says Russia planning Ukraine offensive involving 175K troops: reports MORE holds up documents as he testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on September 14, 2021. Blinken was questioned about the Biden administration's handling of the U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan" width="645" height="363" data-delta="12" />

Senators in both parties are calling on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to immediately appoint a high-level official to oversee the department’s response to "Havana syndrome," the mysterious symptoms a number of U.S. officials have suffered from in Cuba and elsewhere abroad.

An earlier departure: The request follows the departure last month of the State Department’s point person, Pamela Spratlen, on what the agency calls “Anomalous Health Incidents” (AHIs), described as an acute onset of intense, debilitating physical sensations and that are believed to have led to long-term health issues for those affected and forced some into early retirement. 

Spratlen, a 30-year veteran of the State Department and two-time ambassador, had come out of retirement in March to take on the position of senior adviser to the Department Health Incident Response Task Force.

She left the department last month because she had "reached the threshold of hours of labor permitted" as a reemployed retiree.

Lawmakers’ plea: “We urge you to immediately announce a successor to Ambassador Spratlen to lead the Department’s Health Incident Response Task Force. Critically, this post must be a senior-level official that reports directly to you,” the lawmakers wrote. 

Who signed it?: The letter was led by by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and supported by Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Members of the committee who signed on to the letter include Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Cory Booker (D-N.J.),  Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah). 

A growing problem: More than 200 U.S. officials in American postings around the world, as well as in the U.S., are believed to have been effected by AHIs. The first cases were detected in 2016 among American officials serving in Havana.

Most recently, AHIs were reported among U.S. diplomatic staff and their families in Colombia. 

Another incident in September was reported among an intelligence official traveling to India with CIA Director William Burns and, in August, a trip by Vice President Harris to Vietnam was delayed because at least two staff members at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi had reported suffering from AHIs.

Other incidents have been reported in China and countries in South America, Central Asia and Europe, as well as at the Ellipse near the White House.

Read the full story here.

Marine who criticized Afghanistan withdrawal pleads guilty

The Marine officer who criticized the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in videos posted to social media pleaded guilty to all the resulting charges Thursday.

The charges: Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor charges: contempt toward officers, willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer, failure to obey lawful general orders, dereliction in the performance of duties and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.

His plea took place during a court-martial hearing at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

The background:  Scheller in August posted videos to Facebook and LinkedIn after 13 service members were killed in an suicide bombing at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as U.S. forces were withdrawing from the country. While in uniform, Scheller demanded accountability from those in leadership over the messy evacuation. 

The posts led to relief of his command, a week in confinement and the six charges. 

Tim Parlatore, one of Scheller’s attorneys, said his team is working on an agreement with the hope of getting an honorable discharge or a discharge with honorable conditions. 

Read the full story here.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

WHAT WE’RE READING

That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s defense and national security pages for the latest coverage. See you Friday.