Lack of Clarity About Who is in Charge of National Guard Creates Vaccine Mandate Kerfuffle

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt's disagreement with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has called into question who has the power to enforce COVID-19 vaccine mandates on the National Guard.

Despite President Joe Biden's vaccine mandates applying to military personnel, including the National Guard, Stitt sent the Oklahoma National Guard a memo telling troops they are not required to get the shot.

According to an Associated Press report, the memo said "no negative administrative or legal action" would be taken against anyone who refuses the vaccine. Stitt asked Austin to suspend the mandate in Oklahoma, but Austin has yet to formally respond.

An anonymous senior defense official told the AP that governors do not have the authority to relieve the Guard of their military medical readiness requirements, and members who do not comply with the mandate will risk losing their jobs.

However, who has the highest authority over the Guard is proving to be murky. When the Guard is on active state duty, they are paid by the state. But, when training or responding to larger disasters, they are paid by the federal government. In both instances, they report to the governor.

Pentagon officials said Austin has the authority to set medical readiness requirements for the entire force, including the National Guard. They said the vaccine is critical to ensuring any Guard member is healthy enough to deploy at a moment's notice.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Lloyd Austin, Defense Secretary
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has yet to formally respond to Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt's request to not require a National Guard vaccine mandate in Oklahoma. Above, Austin listens as President Joe Biden speaks during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, November 12, in Washington. Evan Vucci/AP Photo

The Pentagon argues that Guard members must meet medical readiness requirements to maintain their federal recognition, be available to deploy and be paid for training.

In a letter this month, Stitt told Austin that the mandate "violates the personal freedoms of many Oklahomans, as it asks them to potentially sacrifice their personal beliefs in order to not lose their jobs." He said the state needs its Guard members for storms and other weather emergencies.

"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," Stitt said.

According to the governor's office, more than 1,000 Army and Air Force Guard members, or about 13%percent of the state's 8,200 troops, have indicated they won't get the vaccine, according to an internal survey.

The 2,000-plus Air Guard members have until December 2 to get shots, based on the deadline set by the Air Force. Stitt's spokeswoman, Carly Atchison, said that about 89 percent of the Air Guard has been vaccinated. A military official said the Oklahoma Air Guard is expected to reach about 95 percent by the deadline. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss statistics not yet public.

About 40 percent of Oklahoma Army Guard members are vaccinated, Atchison said. The Army Guard is not required to be vaccinated until June.

Defense officials have declined to provide specifics on how the mandate will be enforced and how Guard troops may be disciplined or administratively processed out of the Guard and how quickly that could happen. They also won't say whether commanders who decline to enforce the mandate will also be subject to any punishment.

Oklahoma governor, Kevin Stitt
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt sent a memo to the state's National Guard telling them they are not required to get vaccinated, going against the Pentagon's vaccine mandate. Above, Stitt speaks during a roundtable at the State Dining Room of the White House June 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images