As the Navy and Marine Corps get ready to join the rest of the U.S. military in mandating COVID-19 vaccines potentially as soon as next month, the sea service’s top medical officer said Thursday that he doesn’t think those refusing the vaccines will need to be administratively disciplined or court-martialed for refusing the general order.

Speaking to reporters as part of a Defense Writers Group event, Navy Surgeon General Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham said that more than 72 percent of sailors, and more than 50 percent of Marines, are already fully immunized.

For those still refusing the vaccine at this voluntary stage, Gillingham said he doesn’t expect the disciplinary hammer to come down.

“We’ll go back to counseling,” Gillingham said. “We’ll sit down with the individual, understand the source of resistance and address that.”

Gillingham added that he hoped nonjudicial punishment or legal proceedings “would be very late in that continuum.”

“When they realize that, yes, the secretary of defense has made the determination based on expert guidance that (mandatory vaccination) is required for mission readiness, I do believe that those who haven’t gotten the vaccine will see the value and proceed with getting it,” Gillingham said.

“I don’t think we’re going to face significant resistance, frankly,” he added.

He said the service will “certainly be attentive and responsive to medical exemptions” involving immunocompromised individuals or those who had an allergic reaction to the first or second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccines.

Earlier this month, Gillingham framed COVID vaccines as a vital force-protection measure during a panel at the Sea Air Space symposium.

“We would not send our folks into combat without flak and Kevlar,” he said. “The enemy this time is a virus, and we have a biological body armor for them to take and use to protect them … this is biologic body armor. Put it on, be protected.”

Navy brass has noted over much of this year that troops should expect vaccines to become mandatory at some point.

Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell told reporters in July that the path back to normal is vaccination.

“I don’t think you’d see senior leadership pushing (vaccination) if we did not think it was safe and if we didn’t think it was an imperative,” Nowell said.

Fleet Master Chief Wes Koshoffer echoed similar sentiments, especially given the spread of the Delta variant of the virus.

“Now, we’ve got to push hard again for vaccination given that the Delta variant seems to be absolutely ripping through the unvaccinated right now and having significantly higher and more dangerous effects to those that are unvaccinated,” Koshoffer told reporters. “So, we’re back on it now, pushing as hard as ever, to try to get more folks vaccinated.”

Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at geoffz@militarytimes.com.

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