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Navy deserter lived in secret for 40+ years until outed by COVID shot

Navy uniform. (Dreamstime/TNS)
March 23, 2022

A Tennessee man who deserted the United States Navy after basic training has been identified and sentenced this week — more than 40 years since going AWOL.

Jerry Leon Blankenship, 65, has been living under someone else’s identity since deserting the Navy in 1977, and remained in secret until he received his COVID-19 vaccine in 2021, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee announced on Tuesday.

Blankenship accepted a plea deal and pleaded guilty to one count of false use of a social security number and one count of aggravated identity theft. He was sentenced to 25 months in prison and three years on supervised release.

Blankenship may also face a military tribunal for deserting the U.S. Navy, the release stated.

Tennessee authorities discovered Blankenship’s true identity thanks to reports from an identity theft victim in North Carolina when a Walgreens contacted him about his COVID-19 vaccine, which he had not received.  

Video surveillance reviewed by police showed Blankenship receiving the vaccine under the stolen identity in March 2021, court documents showed.

The identity theft victim claimed “he had been plagued with identity theft issues” for decades, The Charlotte Observer reported.

Shortly after deserting the Navy in 1977, Blankenship’s girlfriend at the time suggested he assume the identity of the father of her child, court documents showed. She then gave Blankenship his social security number and other important details.

Eventually, he and the woman broke up, and he met a new woman with whom he settled in Newport. The pair raised three children and built a home repair business together.

“Although it came as a surprise to us all when we found out he had been taken into custody and why, it doesn’t change who he is as a person,” Blankenship’s daughter said in a letter. “Daddy has always been an incredible, faithful, caring and honest man (minus the name.) He is an outstanding citizen.”

According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), deserters could face years in prison or even the death penalty.

“Desertion that ends when the service member is apprehended: dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and confinement for three years. Desertion to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service: dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and confinement for five years,” Gapasin Law Group explains on their website. “In addition, in times of war, someone found guilty of desertion may be sentenced to death or a similar punishment (life in prison, for example). However, this is a very unlikely sentence. Since the Civil War, only one service member has received the death penalty: Eddie Slovik, who was executed for desertion in 1945.”