The Oklahoma National Guard’s commanding general Wednesday defended his directive countermanding federal requirements that all U.S. military personnel be vaccinated against the coronavirus, telling troops in a private town hall event that he was following orders from the state’s Republican governor and meant no disrespect to his superiors at the Pentagon.
Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, speaking to several dozen members of the Oklahoma National Guard in Oklahoma City, cast himself as an apolitical leader bound by law to answer to Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), who fired the state’s previous National Guard commander last week and ordered Mancino the next day to issue a policy allowing members to avoid the vaccine.
The extraordinary move by Stitt has prompted interest among multiple governors and National Guard commanders to explore similar policies in their states, Oklahoma officials said, while leaving the Biden administration with little recourse but to hold individual service members accountable for refusing lawful orders that their immediate chain of command has disavowed.
“I did not initiate a civilian-military crisis just because I thought it was cool, right?” Mancino said, according to a recording of his remarks obtained by The Washington Post and later confirmed by the general in an interview.
Mancino said during the town hall that he had consulted with National Guard lawyers and appeared to point out a path for the Pentagon if it wishes to assert its authority, saying that if he is placed on federal orders, he will carry out the vaccination mandate, which is a centerpiece of President Biden’s strategy for bringing the pandemic under control. The general showed deference to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in his remarks, noting that the two had served together in Afghanistan and joking that the secretary is “a very big individual who can crush me like a bug with his hands.”
Mancino is vaccinated and encourages his troops to get vaccinated if they want, he said in the interview after his town hall remarks. “Where we differ,” he added, speaking about the Pentagon directive, “is my governor said it’s a personal choice on whether you do.”
Pentagon officials said Wednesday that they have the authority to require coronavirus vaccination for National Guard personnel and that continued refusal would put thousands of military careers in jeopardy, in the administration’s sharpest response yet to the unprecedented bid by a subordinate command to undermine unambiguous orders from the U.S. military’s senior-most civilian authority.
“We are not aware of any governor attempting to prohibit members from receiving the vaccine, and don’t see this as placing any individual member in conflict with state authorities,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said in a statement. “Failure to receive the vaccine may jeopardize an individual member’s status in the National Guard.”
Kirby did not address questions seeking clarity as to how the Defense Department planned to inform the roughly 8,200 members of the Oklahoma National Guard that it should ignore Mancino’s policy and instead comply with the federal directive to get vaccinated.
Stitt has asked Austin to exempt Oklahoma Guard personnel from the requirement. Austin gave a news conference at the Pentagon on Wednesday but fielded no questions about the matter.
Kirby in his statement said that governors “may not relieve individual members of the Guard from their obligation to comply with this valid medical readiness requirement.” Austin has not yet responded to the request, the governor’s office said.
A defense official who discussed the dilemma in a conference call with reporters would not disclose whether the Pentagon would seek to reprimand commanders who refuse to enforce the order, which was issued by Austin in August. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon.
The secretaries of the Army and Air Force will work with Gen. Daniel Hokanson, who heads the National Guard Bureau, to address potential consequences for those who refuse orders, the official said, noting they would take action on a “case-by-case basis.”
The vaccination requirement has faced resistance within pockets of the military. While a majority of the active-duty force is fully vaccinated, thousands continue to hold out — and overall, far fewer National Guard personnel have chosen to comply.
Oklahoma’s policy could be a road map for other GOP governors wishing to fight Biden’s mandates. More than five National Guard commanders in other states have contacted officials in Oklahoma expressing interest in a similar policy, according to a senior military official in the state who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the issue’s political sensitivity.
Multiple Republican governors also have spoken to Stitt about duplicating his initiative, said Carly Atchison, a spokeswoman. She did not have more information about which governors spoke to Stitt.
Oklahoma’s new policy walks a line between a state’s military orders, in which the governor acts as commander in chief for operations such as disaster relief, and federal military orders, in which National Guard members carry out missions under the president’s command. In notifying personnel of the new policy, Mancino last week said they would be subject to the vaccine requirement if activated for a federally mandated assignment, such as an overseas deployment.
It is unclear how Pentagon officials will navigate the politically volatile issue, though one potential impediment to a swift resolution is the long time frame Army officials established for Guard members to comply with the mandate. About 54 percent of Army Guard members in the state — roughly 3,200 soldiers — have not received any dose of the vaccine, according to state data. But their deadline to be fully vaccinated is in June.
In contrast, Air National Guard members must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 12, and nearly 89 percent of the state’s airmen have already complied.
The National Guard has absorbed a disproportionate share of the 75 deaths among military personnel infected with the coronavirus. National Guard members account for 28 percent of all covid-19-related deaths in the military, but they constitute only about 19 percent of the entire armed forces. The Army National Guard has the highest death toll across the services, according to Pentagon data.
In his town hall in Oklahoma City, Mancino expressed frustration with how he has been portrayed and asked at the outset of his remarks if any journalists were in the room. He pointed specifically to comments by MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow, who noted on her show Monday that both the Oklahoma National Guard and the Defense Department are armed and asked, “If both the Oklahoma National Guard and the Defense Department refuse to back down on this, how does this resolve?”
Mancino said that Maddow “knows better” than to imply “that I’m the next Robert E. Lee, and that I’m instigating a civil war,” referencing the Confederate military leader. If placed under federal statutes, Mancino said, he would apologize to Stitt and carry out the Biden administration’s orders.
“Does that make me two-faced? Does that make me evil? No,” Mancino said. “It makes me a professional military officer. I don’t have political opinions. I execute orders.”
Mancino took questions from National Guard troops, including one who asked if the general was aware that some under his command felt coerced to get the vaccine.
“I am aware of it,” Mancino responded. “I will say this: Up until the point I issued my order, you were under a lawful order to take that vaccine.”
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.