Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Caroline Crumbacker walks at Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy, on Jan. 12, 2022. Crumbacker, who refused the COVID-19 vaccine, said that despite a recent Defense Department reversal of the vaccine mandate, she is undecided about staying in the Navy past her enlistment end date.

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Caroline Crumbacker walks at Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy, on Jan. 12, 2022. Crumbacker, who refused the COVID-19 vaccine, said that despite a recent Defense Department reversal of the vaccine mandate, she is undecided about staying in the Navy past her enlistment end date. (Alison Bath/Stars and Stripes)

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NAPLES, Italy — Some active-duty service members who refused the COVID-19 vaccine and faced expulsion from the military say a recent Defense Department announcement rescinding the mandatory inoculation order is a hollow victory. 

The action, which was announced this week by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and is required by the defense authorization bill passed last month, doesn’t address damage to military careers or restore the faith of service members sidelined by their refusal to take the vaccine, said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Caroline Crumbacker.

“It feels like I should be able to take a breath and feel like I got the outcome I wanted,” said Crumbacker, who is assigned to Naval Support Activity Naples in Italy and isn’t certain whether she will continue her military career past her January 2025 enlistment end date. “But at the same time, I can’t let my guard down.”

Crumbacker and other unvaccinated service members said they felt trivialized and ostracized because of their objections and were sidelined when it came to deployments, training and other opportunities.

The Pentagon directive issued Tuesday lets commanders continue to decide whether unvaccinated service members are assigned or deployed to any country, including those with a vaccine requirement. Such restrictions may limit career progression.

“I feel like the next four years would be me trying to undo the past year-and-a-half, two years just to get back to the spot where I was already competitively (for advancement),” said Crumbacker, who at one time thought she would complete 20 years in the Navy. “Why would I want to stay in an organization that treated me like that when (I) was struggling?”

Although Austin rescinded his August 2021 mandate requiring troops to be vaccinated against COVID-19, he made it clear he believed the order was correct, saying the department would continue to promote and encourage the vaccinations.

“All commanders have the responsibility and authority to preserve the department’s compelling interest in mission accomplishment,” Austin stated.

While the memo ended pending involuntary separations for unvaccinated service members who asked for waivers on religious, medical or administrative grounds, it didn’t help the thousands already pushed out of the service solely for refusing the vaccine.

Those who were involuntarily separated for vaccination refusal may petition to have an other-than-honorable discharge reviewed, which could allow them to reenlist. But there is no potential for them to return at the level they were at before, a Pentagon spokeswoman told Stars and Stripes on Thursday.

Austin said 96% of all active-duty and reserve service members combined are fully vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says COVID-19 vaccinations are safe and effective in preventing disease and minimizing the risk of hospitalization or death in immunized people who contract the virus.

A 2022 study found that mRNA vaccines were 90% effective in preventing death from COVID-19 in adults 60 days after they received a second booster shot, according to data on the CDC website.

Many unvaccinated service members who sought waivers saw their requests denied.

For example, the Navy and Army have involuntarily separated 1,639 and 1,851 active-duty service members, respectively, for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the latest data available on their websites.

In addition, 402 Navy reserve sailors have been involuntarily separated for refusing the vaccine. No Army National Guard or Army Reservists have been separated for the same reason, the data show.

Meanwhile, the Navy has approved 16 permanent medical and 51 permanent religious accommodation requests for active-duty and reserve personnel. The Army had approved 65 permanent medical and 123 permanent religious waiver requests as of Dec. 8.

Involuntary separation data for the Air Force wasn’t included with its December COVID-19 update.

For the Marine Corps, 3,717 of its members had been separated as of Dec. 1 for refusing the vaccine, according to the service’s website.

The service had approved 23 waivers on religious grounds and 333 medical or administrative exemptions, according to the data.

Army Sgt. Louis Paulsen, who is assigned to a base near Naples, Italy, said his request for a religious accommodation and subsequent appeal were denied.

Even if there weren’t consequences, Paulsen, who joined the Army 5½ years ago, said he probably wouldn’t continue past his 2024 enlistment end date.

He said his faith in the Army has been destroyed because the service didn’t follow its requirements when it came to offering the least restrictive means to meet its objectives and accommodate his traditionalist Roman Catholic beliefs.

The Catholic Church deemed the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines “morally permissible” in 2021 but left room for objections of conscience.

Paulsen said his refusal to take the vaccine wasn’t a conscientious objection based on the church’s statements, but rather due to his own religious beliefs and reasoning.

“There are means of protecting force health while still accommodating religion," said Paulsen, who named face masks and social distancing as among those options. “Those are the least restrictive means other than forcibly having people put something into their body that very seriously compromises their religion in a permanent, nontemporary fashion.”

Paulsen also is disappointed that the Defense Department has not indicated a willingness or plan to evaluate the COVID-19 vaccination policy or the treatment of vaccine objectors.

“There’s no lessons learned here,” Paulsen said. “This could happen again.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Doug G. Ware contributed to this report.

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Alison Bath reports on the U.S. Navy, including U.S. 6th Fleet, in Europe and Africa. She has reported for a variety of publications in Montana, Nevada and Louisiana, and served as editor of newspapers in Louisiana, Oregon and Washington.

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