4 reservists died of COVID-19 complications in a single week

Four more deaths in the final days of 2021 capped off what have been the military’s deadliest months of the pandemic. After reporting a total of 14 deaths in 2020, the services jumped from 27 deaths overall in June to 86 total — making the 2021 toll for service members 72.

All eight deaths reported in December were either members of the Reserve or National Guard, who were given extra time to finish their mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations. The Air Force extended its deadline from Dec. 2 to Jan. 2, while the Navy and Marine Corps deadline passed Dec. 28. The Army has until June 30.

Most recent deaths include:

  • Air National Guard Master Sgt. Craig Hilderbrand, 57, died Dec. 22. He was assigned to the 155th Air Refueling Wing in Lincoln, Nebraska.
  • Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jose Valenzuela, 50, died Dec. 26. He was assigned to the 1128th Forward Support Company in Marshall, Missouri.
  • Army National Guard chief warrant officer 3, 56, died Dec. 27. He was assigned to 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group in Denver, Colorado. His family declined to release his identity, according to a Guard spokesman.
  • Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Ashburn, 53, died Dec. 29. He was assigned to 1st Battalion, 304th Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 98th Training Division, 108th Training Command in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

The reserve component has been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic, accounting for 55 of 86 deaths overall. Of those, with the Army making up the vast majority of reservists, 39 of those deaths have been in that service’s reserve component.

The majority of reserve deaths have been in troops over age 50, but a handful of troops in their 20s and 30s were also among them.

To date, three of the service members who have died after contracting the novel coronavirus were at least partially vaccinated, according to Pentagon data. Two had received the first of a two-dose regimen, while a third had received the Johnson and Johnson single-dose vaccine.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Sunday that he had tested positive for COVID-19, as more Americans experience breakthrough cases due to the exceptionally contagious Omicron variant.

Following a late-summer surge in COVID-19 deaths, which more than doubled the military’s death toll since the beginning of the pandemic, the mortality rate has come down as more troops have received the mandatory vaccine.

As of Wednesday, 84 percent of the total force ―just under 1.94 million troops ― are at least partially vaccinated. Roughly 98 percent active-duty force is at least partially vaccinated, while the rest have either secured an exemption, are awaiting decision on a waiver request or are expected to be involuntarily separated.

New COVID-19 cases have jumped in the military with the emergence of the Omicron variant, though hospitalizations and deaths have remained stable overall.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT

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