A court order barring the Navy from removing the commander of a Norfolk-based destroyer because he refused a COVID-19 vaccination has indefinitely sidelined the ship.
The order comes in a lawsuit filed by the ship’s commander and a Marine lieutenant colonel, saying their religious freedoms were infringed when they refused vaccinations and then were subject to reassignment.
It “presents a direct and imminent threat to national security during a global military crisis,” the Pentagon said in a court filing.
“By forcing the Navy to keep in place a commander of a destroyer who has lost the trust of his superior officers and the Navy at large, this Order effectively places a multi-billion dollar guided-missile destroyer out of commission,” the Pentagon said.
“If it becomes necessary to deploy an East Coast-based surface ship in response to global events in Ukraine (or elsewhere), the Navy will not deploy the Commander’s vessel.”
U.S. District Court Judge Steven D. Merryday last month ordered the Navy not to remove the commander, saying he would “suffer a substantial burden on a sincere religious belief … which requires the preservation of his body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.”
Merryday said the Pentagon had not demonstrated its concern to protect others from infection, given the commander’s success operating through the pandemic so far without endangering his shipmates, outweighed the commander’s right to practice his religion.
The Pentagon’s filing did not name the commander or the destroyer, but affidavits in court papers said he and the ship are in Destroyer Squadron 26, which is part of the USS George H.W. Bush carrier strike group. The strike group has just started a critical training phase to prepare for deployment.
The destroyer squadron’s commodore, Capt. Frank Brandon, testified that the commander disobeyed an order he is expected to enforce: to get a vaccination.
In addition, Brandon said the commander last month misled him about taking leave out of the area by telling him he would be staying locally with his family when he in fact flew out of town in order to testify in the lawsuit.
That trip meant the commander would be quarantined for five days after his return, but he did not inform the ship’s executive officer, who would have been responsible for the ship and his crew in the commander’s absence, Brandon said.
He said the commander’s absence and failure to tell the executive officer about his departure was a major breach of command responsibility.
Brandon said when the commander embarked on the destroyer in November, he “could barely speak,” and admitted he had a sore throat.
Brandon ordered a COVID-19 test, which came back positive.
He said the commander had been in contact with members of the destroyer’s crew over two days while infected with the contagious virus, including at one point 50 or 60 people packed shoulder to shoulder in a confined space.
“The prospect of a subordinate commander in charge of other Service members or military assets disregarding the orders of his or her superior for personal reasons, whatever they may be, is itself a manifest national security concern,” Vice Adm. Daniel Dwyer told the court.
Dwyer said the risks of leaving an unvaccinated officer in command of a destroyer include the commander’s potential incapacitation, possible need for a medical evacuation and quarantine requirements when calling on foreign ports.
“Even if the Court found him credible despite these lapses in judgment, Navy Commander cannot lead a crew and command a warship, particularly given the breach of the relationships with both his commanding officer and his subordinates,” the Pentagon filing said.
The commander had testified that he believes the vaccine introduces an unclean substance into his body, which he understands is a gift from God and a temple of the Holy Spirit, because of the reported use of fetal cell tissue in developing the vaccines.
“I never thought I would be placed in the position of conflict between my faith and a military order, and have to decide whether to remain true to what God wants me to do, or be kicked out of the service,” the commander said in an affidavit.
The commander led the destroyer in a series of operations, including a voyage exceeding 300 days during the height of the pandemic, while adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols, including masking, sanitizing, physical distancing, COVID-19 testing, and quarantining, the judge wrote.