Generals say they will punish unvaccinated soldiers caught without masks on at Fort Knox

From left, Maj. Gen. John P. Sullivan, outgoing commanding general, 1st Theater Sustainment Command; Lt. Gen. Terry Ferrell, commanding general, U.S. Army Central; and Maj. Gen. Michel M. Russell Sr., incoming commanding general, 1st TSC, arrive at the 1st Theater Sustainment Command Change of Command Ceremony at Fort Knox, Kentucky July 13, 2021. During the ceremony, Maj. Gen. Michel M. Russell Sr. assumed command of the 1st TSC from Maj. Gen. John P. Sullivan before an audience of current and former leaders, community members, family, and 1st TSC Soldiers. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Owen Thez, 1st TSC Public Affairs)

Corey Dickstein

Stars and Stripes

Generals at the Army’s Fort Knox will issue nonjudicial punishments to unvaccinated soldiers recently caught not wearing a mask inside facilities on the Kentucky installation where masks remain mandated for those who have not been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, officials said Tuesday.

Fort Knox generals are expected to issue about 40 General Officer Memoranda of Reprimand to soldiers who were caught by senior leaders eschewing Pentagon-directed policy mandating masks be worn indoors on military posts by all individuals who are not fully vaccinated, said Kyle Hodges, a Fort Knox spokesman. The letters, known as GOMARs, are potentially career-crippling administrative punishments that the Army has long used to reprimand soldiers outside of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

“In just a matter of hours last week, during random inspections, senior Fort Knox leaders identified several dozen unvaccinated individuals who attempted to enter on-post facilities such as the Shoppette and Post Exchange without masks,” Hodges said in a statement. “These unmasked individuals failed to provide proof of vaccination.”

As of Tuesday, the GOMARS had not yet been issued, Hodges said. They would be among the first publicly revealed punishments for U.S. military troops caught disregarding Pentagon mask guidance for those unvaccinated against the coronavirus.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued the guidance in May based on recommendations by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Austin, at that time, allowed troops and other individuals who are fully vaccinated against the virus to stop wearing masks indoors in most U.S. military settings worldwide.

The extent of the impact that the letters could have on the soldiers who receive them depends on whether the memoranda are included in their permanent personnel files or only issued locally. A permanent file GOMAR would remain in the soldiers’ personnel records for the remainder of their career and “can be grounds for denial of promotion, denial of reenlistment, or administrative separation,” according to the Army. A local memorandum would be destroyed within three years or when the soldier moves to a new duty station and cannot be viewed by promotions boards, according to the Army.

Hodges said the GOMARs expected to be issued were on a “case-by-case” basis. He said he could not provide further information about the breakdown of the punishments.

The reprimands, he said, were only issued to soldiers caught violating mask-related rules. They are not an attempt to punish troops for not getting vaccinated, he added.

“We have plenty of soldiers who aren’t vaccinated that are following the [ Defense Department] and installation mask mandates and have no problems,” Hodges said. “For those who won’t follow the rules … we’re just enforcing those rules.”

Defense Department officials said commanders have had the power to check uniformed troops’ vaccination status since mask restrictions were lifted for vaccinated personnel in the spring. It was not clear Tuesday whether unvaccinated troops at other locations had been punished for disobeying mask mandates.

The efforts at Fort Knox have been led by Maj. Gen. John Evans, the commander of the Army Cadet Command and the senior commander for the Kentucky installation. Hodges said they are primarily aimed at keeping the post’s 12,000 soldiers and thousands more civilian workers and family members safe, especially as the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads quickly in the United States.

“By law and regulation, the senior commander at each installation is responsible for the maintenance of good order and discipline, including force health protection,” Hodges said. ” Fort Knox leaders must continue to ensure the health and safety of those working on the installation and also protect the surrounding community.”

The Pentagon has spent months encouraging its troops and civilian employees to get vaccinated, declaring the three vaccines approved by Food and Drug Administration as safe and effective. But the military has yet to mandate its troops receive the vaccine, despite some lawmakers in Congress encouraging it do so.

Because the vaccines are approved only on an emergency basis, President Joe Biden would have to order the military to mandate the vaccine. However, even as Biden has worked to improve vaccinations rates across the nation, he has stopped short of directing mandatory vaccines for service members. Pentagon officials have acknowledged in recent weeks that the vaccine will likely be made mandatory for troops once the FDA issued full authorizations.

Austin last week reported 70% of active-duty service members had received at least one coronavirus vaccination dose and 62% of the active-duty force had been fully vaccinated.

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