National Guard troops refusing the COVID-19 vaccination won’t be paid for their drills or be excused from any training or duty conducted while under federal authority, according to a memo released Tuesday by the Pentagon.
The memo from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin amounts to a shot across the bow to Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has sought to block Mr. Austin’s vaccine mandate for personnel in the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard who don’t want to take the vaccine.
“Vaccination is essential to the health and readiness of the force,” Mr. Austin wrote in his memo to the service secretaries along with other Pentagon officials including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the chief of the National Guard Bureau.
“No Department of Defense funding may be allocated for payment of duties performed under [federal authority] for members of the National Guard who do not comply with the Department of Defense COVID-19 vaccination requirements,” the memo stated. “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.”
The memo came the day after Mr. Austin’s rejection of a request from Gov. Stitt a waiver from the COVID order for members of the Oklahoma National Guard. The governor said the mandate “violates the personal freedoms of many Oklahoman’s” because it asks them to potentially sacrifice their personal beliefs in order to not lose their jobs.
“All of our National Guardsmen take this calling very seriously,” Mr. Stitt wrote. “These are patriotic citizens who are willing to put their lives on the line to protect others in our communities during times of greatest need.”
Secretary Austin told the governor he made the decision because of the hospitalizations and deaths of military personnel and their families because of COVID-19, which he said “jeopardizes our ability to meet mission requirements.”
“The concerns raised in your letter do not negate the indeed for this important military readiness requirement,” Mr. Austin wrote in his reply.
Pentagon officials said they’ve received no other requests from state governors for a vaccination waiver as the service’s deadlines come and go.
“By not taking the vaccine, therefore not meeting a mandatory readiness requirement, an individual in the National Guard could put in jeopardy their ability to continue to serve,” chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday.
Unlike the completely federal Army Reserves, the Army and Air National Guard operated under a dual command system. It can operate as either a state force where the governor is the commander-in-chief — known as Title 32 — or as a federal military agency — known as Title 10.
This issue is at the heart of the dispute.
“Failing to follow the governor’s lawful orders while on [state duty] would be both illegal, unethical and against our sworn oaths,” Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, the adjutant general for Oklahoma, said in a statement. “If [Oklahoma Guard troops] are not mobilized on Title 10 orders, the only entity that can give you a ‘lawful order’ — that is an order backed by the authority of law — is the governor and his designated chain-of-command.”
It wasn’t immediately clear on Tuesday what Oklahoma officials intend to do now that Secretary Austin has denied the request. They estimate that more than 800 Oklahoma Guard personnel — about 10 percent of the force — don’t plan to receive the vaccine.
“It is irresponsible for the federal government to place mandatory vaccine obligations on Oklahoma National Guardsmen which could potentially limit the number of individuals that I can call upon to assist the state during an emergency,” Mr. Stitt wrote.