Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Monday denied a motion by Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt to exempt his state’s National Guard from a Pentagon requirement to vaccinate all military personnel against COVID-19.
Republican Stitt asked Austin in early November to suspend members of the Oklahoma Guard. In his response, which denied the request, Austin set out the Pentagon‘s rationale for the mandate and pointed out the possible consequences of Stitt’s stated intention to oppose the request.
In his letter to Stitt, a copy of which The Associated Press had received, Austin left the question of how vaccination should be enforced and how far the Pentagon will go to enforce the problem. He suggested that guards who refuse the shots could lose their federal status, which could affect their pay and future performance.
Austin wrote that “regardless of service status,” all Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard members must follow instructions from Army and Air Force Service Secretaries to meet COVID-19 vaccine deadlines. “Failure to comply may result in a member being banned from participating in exercises and training” conducted under Title 32 of the US Code, “and jeopardizing the member’s status in the National Guard.”
The dispute is the first critical test of the military’s authority to engage National Guard troops to receive the shot, and it could lay the groundwork for litigation with states that oppose the vaccination requirement.
So far, Stitt is the only governor to publicly question the military mandate.
In his November 2 letter to Austin, Stitt wrote that the mandate “violates the personal freedoms of many Oklahomans by asking them to possibly sacrifice their personal beliefs in order not to lose their jobs.” He said the state needs its guardsmen for storms and other weather emergencies, and alleged that it would be “irresponsible for the federal government to make Oklahoma National Guards mandatory vaccinations, which could limit the number of people I can call could”. to support the state in an emergency. “
In response, Austin wrote, “The concerns expressed in your letter do not negate the need for this important military readiness requirement.”
On orders from Stitt, the adjutant general of the state, Brig. Gen. General Thomas Mancino, released a memo informing his troops that they are under no obligation to fire the shot and that “no negative administrative or legal action” against they would be taken if they refused.
The first to be affected may be members of the Oklahoma Air Guard who have until December 2 to get vaccinated within a time limit set by the Air Force. Remaining questions include whether unvaccinated Air Guard members who sign up for their monthly exercise in December or January will need to be injected, or be sent home or reassigned if they refuse.
Stitt spokeswoman Carly Atchison said about 89 percent of the state’s Air Guard – which is estimated to number more than 2,000 soldiers – have been vaccinated. A military official said the Air Guard rate is expected to hit around 95 percent by the December deadline. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss statistics that have not yet been published.
Austin’s decision was widely awaited as the Pentagon has argued for months that the vaccine is critical to maintaining an operational force that can be deployed in the short term to protect the nation. Defense leaders say Austin, as chief of defense, can set medical requirements for the military, including the Guard and the Reserve, and that governors have no authority to exonerate troops from those requirements.
Vaccines against a wide variety of diseases have long been required for troops, with some requiring as many as 17 for deployments around the world. And defense officials warn that soldiers who refuse to comply run the risk of losing their jobs with the National Guard.
Still, the National Guard presents a unique case. When guards are on active duty with the state, for example in response to local events, they report to the governor and are paid by the state. But during their monthly or annual training, or when responding to major disasters in the state, they are in what is known as Title 32 status and are controlled by the governor but funded by the federal government.
The guard can also be activated for federal services, including deployments abroad, under a different status known as Title 10, treating them like active-duty troops under federal control and funding.
Retired Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, president of the U.S. National Guard Association, said in an interview that it was common for Guard soldiers to have gaps or delays in their annual or routine medical requirements. And he said they often come for a monthly exercise or their annual two-week training and need various vaccines or medical and dental exams.
However, Robinson said he believes the state retains every authority to enforce requirements like the vaccine until a service member in Title 10 status is activated and is under the control of the federal government.
According to an internal survey, Stitt’s office said more than 1,000 Army and Air Force Guard personnel, or about 13 percent of the state’s 8,200 Soldiers, said they will not receive the vaccine. Atchison added that about 40 percent of the Oklahoma Army Guard have been vaccinated, but they have until next June to get their vaccinations within an Army-set deadline.