National Guard members who refuse to be vaccinated against the coronavirus will be barred from training and have their pay withheld, the Pentagon said Tuesday, in an apparent warning shot from the Biden administration to Republican governors looking to defy federal mandates.
In his guidance, Austin said all 2.1 million service members, including National Guard personnel under state command, are obligated to follow his August order instructing them to receive the vaccine. Failure to comply, he has said, will result in disciplinary action and imperil their careers. “No credit or excused absence shall be afforded to members who do not participate in drills, training, or other duty due to failure to be fully vaccinated against covid-19,” Austin said.
His memo appears to be in direct response to the unprecedented standoff with the Pentagon that has taken hold in Oklahoma, where thousands of National Guard personnel remain unvaccinated and a spokesman for Stitt insisted Tuesday that the governor was within his authority to tell them they may sidestep federal directives.
Stitt informed Austin on Nov. 2 that the order for all troops to get vaccinated “violates the personal freedoms of many Oklahomans” and that a significant number of troops planned to forgo vaccination. He later ordered Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, commander of Oklahoma’s roughly 8,200 National Guard troops, to execute a policy allowing members to avoid the vaccine while on state orders if they wished.
Austin denied Stitt’s request in a separate letter Monday, asserting his authority over every aspect of the military. He said his order requiring vaccination was informed in large part by the hundreds of deaths and thousands of hospitalizations of service members and Defense Department civilians due to the coronavirus.
“Covid-19 takes our service members out of the fight, temporarily or permanently, and jeopardizes our ability to meet mission requirements,” Austin wrote. “The concerns in your letter do not negate the need for this important military readiness requirement.”
Stitt “maintains his position that the governor is the commander in chief for all members of the Oklahoma National Guard” while on state orders, spokesman Charlie Hannema said in a statement Tuesday. “No policy changes are planned,” Hannema said.
Stitt’s office is exploring laws that govern federal and state authorities for the National Guard, pointing to one section that says the federal government can withhold funding to states over failure to heed orders but does not prescribe actions against individuals.
The episode is “far from over in our eyes,” said an official in the governor’s office who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe ongoing discussions.
Other governors have privately expressed interest in enacting similar policies, officials in Oklahoma have said, declining to name any of them. The Pentagon has not received such requests from other governors, said John Kirby, a spokesman, who noted Monday that enforcement would focus on individuals who refuse orders rather than commanders carrying out Stitt’s policy.
The brouhaha comes as vaccination deadlines draw near for some Guard members. Those in the Air National Guard must be fully vaccinated by Thursday. The majority of Oklahoma Guard troops fall under the Army National Guard, which has a summer deadline, allowing most to avoid the vaccine mandate until late June, even with this new guidance from the Pentagon.
Although some Guard troops could skip the vaccine and still serve within the state for some time, they won’t be able to avoid the federal mandate if mobilized for an overseas deployment or attend various training programs vital for career advancement, all but ending their careers.
“With that freedom of choice, that doesn’t mean you escape all responsibility for your choice,” Mancino said.
The National Guard has accounted for a disproportionate share of the 75 deaths among military personnel with covid-19. Guard members account for 28 percent of all covid-related deaths in the military, though they make up only about 19 percent of the armed forces.
The majority of those deaths occurred this summer and fall, as the delta variant swept through the United States, peaking with 21 deaths in September alone. None of the service members who died were fully vaccinated, the Pentagon has said. No new deaths have been reported in recent weeks, with defense officials pointing to rising vaccination rates as a major factor.