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Sailors, Marines with HIV can serve overseas

Dec. 13, 2012 - 08:49AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 13, 2012 - 08:49AM  |  
The Navy recently made a change to allow HIV-positive sailors and Marines to serve at command discretion at overseas duty stations and on ships with sufficient medical care.
The Navy recently made a change to allow HIV-positive sailors and Marines to serve at command discretion at overseas duty stations and on ships with sufficient medical care. (Photographer's Mate Airman Finley Williams / Navy)
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The Navy in August quietly issued a major overhaul of its policy on assignments for sailors and Marines with HIV, allowing affected personnel to be stationed or deployed overseas under certain conditions.

The change, which will allow HIV-positive sailors and Marines to serve at command discretion at overseas duty stations and on ships with sufficient medical care, puts the Navy at the forefront of eliminating policies that poorly serve the sea services and troops, according to Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs Juan Garcia.

"An investment in training of these members has been made. … The previous policy of denying deployments has made [these] personnel less competitive in achieving career milestones or warrior qualifications," Garcia wrote in SECNAVINST 5300.30.

The decision stemmed largely from advancements in the past decade in HIV treatment and management, said Shoshona Pilip-Florea, deputy public affairs officer for Navy Medical Command.

She said many HIV infections now are managed with a single daily pill, and monitoring requirements are less rigorous than they were before 1996, when having HIV meant developing incurable AIDS.

"Current studies from Europe have shown HIV-infected patients live, on average, 20 to 30 years from the time of their diagnosis and in many cases much longer," Pilip-Florea said.

The Defense Department has largely left it to the services to determine assignments policy for HIV-positive personnel. A 2006 DoD instruction says affected members who are found to be fit for duty "shall be allowed to serve in a manner that ensures access to appropriate medical care."

Four days after the Navy issued its revised policy, the Army published a revision of its own regulation, 600-110, that updated programs to manage HIV-positive personnel on Army installations but left in place restrictions on overseas assignment for HIV-positive soldiers.

"HIV-infected soldiers will not be deployed or assigned overseas," the regulation reads. "HIV-infected soldiers will not perform official duties overseas for any duration of time. Soldiers confirmed to be HIV-infected while stationed overseas will be reassigned to the United States."

The Air Force's current policy was drafted in 2004 and is being updated to reflect changes in treatment and care, an Air Force spokeswoman said.

Like the other services, the Air Force requires active-duty airmen to be tested every two years. Those who test positive may remain in the military but must be evaluated every six months by a physician. Their assignments are restricted to the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and they cannot be assigned to mobility positions.

Under the Air Force regulation, 48-135, waivers are considered on a case-by-case basis, but they must be requested by a general or theater commander and state that "the individual is essential to mission accomplishment."

According to statistics provided by the Air Force, the service has eight HIV-positive personnel serving overseas six who were diagnosed at their current duty stations and finishing their tours and two who received waivers.

Ten to 15 airmen have received waivers since the 2004 Air Force policy was issued, statistics show.

From Jan. 1, 2000, through June 30, 2010, a total of 2,114 active-duty service members were diagnosed with HIV, according to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center. As of Dec. 5, the Navy had 450 active-duty members who were HIV-positive; the Marine Corps, 101; and the Air Force, 175. The Army did not provide data by press time.

Navy Personnel Command received the new Navy instruction in early November, said personnel chief Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk. He said his staff is reviewing it.

"We'll have to take a look at what the demand signal is out there in terms of people and ratings," Van Buskirk said.

News of the Navy policy change was first reported in OutServe Magazine, a publication for the active-duty gay community.

An HIV-positive soldier who read about the change called it a "step in the right direction."

"People are starting to understand that things need to change. We are not just a walking communicable disease; we have something to contribute," he told Military Times.

Although the Navy policy change will not affect him, he hopes the Army eventually will embrace similar rules instead of seconding HIV-positive soldiers like him to desk jobs, which the hazardous material specialist said he's landed ever since he was diagnosed in 2004.

He added that he supported restrictions preventing HIV-positive troops from serving on individual augmentation tours and in combat zones.

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