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Five GOP governors ask Pentagon to drop vaccine mandate for National Guard members

Rhode Island Army National Guard Sgt. Juan Gomez looks over the post-immunization waiting area at a coronavirus mass-vaccination site in June. (David Goldman/AP)
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Five Republican governors have asked the Pentagon to withdraw its requirement for all National Guard members to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, expanding the front of GOP resistance to President Biden’s directives that the federal workforce and government contractors be immunized.

Governors from Iowa, Wyoming, Alaska, Mississippi and Nebraska on Tuesday signed a joint letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin saying they agree he has authority to impose requirements on service members under federal control. That includes National Guard troops — ordinarily under the state command — when they are mobilized for duty beyond their borders, such as overseas deployments.

“However, directives dictating whether training in a Title 32 status can occur, setting punishment requirements for refusing to be covid-19 vaccinated, and requiring separation from each state National Guard if unvaccinated are beyond your constitutional and statutory authority,” the joint letter said. Title 32 status is the authority that governors use as commanders in chief of their troops.

The letter from the five governors follows an order by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) last month to his top National Guard commander to make the vaccine optional for troops while they are under state control and to decline punishments for any Guard members who refuse the vaccine.

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Austin’s guidance, published in response to Oklahoma’s bid, 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.

Training and exercise activity conducted by the National Guard is overseen by the states but is funded by the federal government.

“We have received the letter from the five governors and will respond in due course,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said.

The joint letter comes two weeks after the vaccine deadline for Air National Guard members, making the move little more than political posturing for thousands of Air Guard members in those states who have already received the vaccine. The effort to stave off the requirement at this point is relevant only to Army National Guard soldiers, whose deadline to be vaccinated is the end of June.

In a separate statement, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said it’s “unconscionable to think the government will go so far as to strip these honorable men and women of the nation’s top duties if they don’t comply.” Guard members, she said, “protect the very freedoms that the federal government apparently doesn’t believe they too deserve.”

The Iowa National Guard on Wednesday said 92 percent of its nearly 2,000 Air Guard members have received at least one shot, along with 80 percent of its roughly 7,000 Army National Guard members.

A spokesperson for Reynolds did not respond to requests for comment. It is unclear whether these five states will pursue a policy similar to Oklahoma’s and tell Guard members the vaccine is optional while they are under state control.

Last week, Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, commander of the Oklahoma National Guard, clarified the stakes and consequences for vaccine refusal.

“Anyone exercising their personal responsibility and deciding not to take the vaccine, must realize that the potential for career ending federal action, barring a favorable court ruling, legislative intervention, or a change in policy is present,” he said. His defense of Stitt’s authority should not be construed as protection from punishments that arise when troops are put under federal control, he said.

“I have no such power,” Mancino said.

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National Guard vaccine rates are well below those for the active duty forces. The Air National Guard, which had a Dec. 2 deadline, is 92 percent vaccinated, according to National Guard Bureau data last week. More than 66 percent of Army National Guard soldiers had at least one dose.

Defense officials have said the rates are probably higher because some Guard members may have received vaccines in the civilian system and still need to enter their records. More than 97 percent of the active duty military has had at least one vaccine dose, according to Pentagon data.

The National Guard has borne a disproportionately large share of the 79 deaths among military personnel infected with the coronavirus. National Guard members account for about 28 percent of all covid-19-related deaths in the military but constitute only about 19 percent of the entire armed forces.