Oklahoma defies Pentagon Vaccine Guard mandate

Oklahoma defies Pentagon Vaccine Guard mandate

Washington — A row between Oklahoma’s governor and the Pentagon over the authorization of a COVID-19 vaccine has set the first critical test of the military’s authority to demand the National Guard take the shot and lay the groundwork for potential protests from other states.

On the order of Republican Governor Kevin Stitt, the state’s assistant general sent a memo telling troops that they were not required to pick up the syringe and that “no adverse administrative or legal action” would be taken against them if they refused. This is from the Dean. General Thomas Mancino came when State asked Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to consider suspending the mandate of members of the Oklahoma Guard.

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A senior defense official told reporters Wednesday that the governor does not have the authority to exempt guardsmen from military medical readiness requirements. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing legal matters, said National Guard personnel who refuse to comply risk losing their National Guard jobs.

As of Wednesday, Austin has not formally responded to Stitt, the first and so far only governor to have formally protested the Guard’s requirements. His challenge raises a number of legal questions and highlights a combative political debate over the vaccine.

The White House and health officials have backed mandates to raise vaccination rates and reduce deaths from the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the boldest move President Joe Biden has taken yet to persuade reluctant Americans to finally get a vaccine, but they face legal battles from states, workers and federal employees.

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The army is a unique testing ground. The Pentagon considers a vaccine to be necessary to maintain a ready force that can deploy at any moment to protect the nation, and the members of the Guard and Reserve are part of that force.

However, the guard is a little different, too. When the Guards are on active duty to the state, such as responding to local events, they report to the governor and get paid by the state. But during their monthly or annual training or when they respond to larger disasters in the state, they are under the control of the governor but funded by the federal government.

Guards can also be activated for federal duties, including overseas deployments, under a different status that treats them like operating forces, under federal control and funding.

Pentagon officials have repeatedly said that Austin has the authority to determine medical preparedness requirements, including vaccinations, for the entire force, including the Guard. They argue that Guard members must meet these requirements to maintain their federal recognition, be available for publication and be paid for training.

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In a letter this month, State told Austin that the mandate “violates the personal liberties of many Oklahoma residents, as it requires them to sacrifice their personal beliefs so that they do not lose their jobs.” He said the country needs its guards to deal with storms and other weather emergencies.

“It is irresponsible for the federal government to impose mandatory vaccine obligations on Oklahoma National Guardsmen that could limit the number of individuals I can contact to help the state during an emergency,” State said.

According to the governor’s office, more than 1,000 members of the Army and Air Guard, or about 13% of the state’s 8,200 troops, have indicated they will not receive the vaccine, according to an internal survey.

The 2,000-plus members of the Air Guard have until December 2 to get their shots, based on a deadline set by the Air Force. State spokeswoman Carly Atchison said about 89% of the Air Force Guard have been vaccinated. A military official said the Oklahoma Air Guard is expected to be around 95% by the deadline. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the statistics, which have not yet been released.

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About 40% of the Oklahoma Army’s guard personnel have been vaccinated, Acheson said. Army Guard is not required to vaccinate until the month of June.

Defense officials declined to provide specifics about how the mandate would be carried out, how Guard forces might be disciplined or administratively handled outside the Guard, and how quickly this could happen. Nor will they say whether commanders who refuse to carry out the mandate will also be subject to any punishment.

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