National Guardsmen Without COVID Vaccine to Have Pay Withheld, Barred from Federal Drills

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has announced that National Guard members who decline the COVID-19 vaccination will be banned from drills and training that are required to maintain their guard status, losing their pay, retirement funds and other federal benefits.

Austin announced the new policy Tuesday in an internal memo obtained by the Associated Press.

Under Federal law, members of the National Guard must assemble for drills and participate in training a specific number of days per year. Austin said the Guard members who do not get the coronavirus vaccine and, therefore, are not allowed to participate in drills will not be paid by the Defense Department and will not receive credit that counts towards their retirement and other federal benefits.

"Vaccination is essential to the health and readiness of the force," Austin wrote, as all members of the military are required to be vaccinated unless they obtain an official waiver for medical or other approved reasons.

In the memo, Austin instructed leaders by next week to publish guidelines for dealing with Guard members who do not meet the military medical readiness requirements. Austin also told the service leaders to implement the new policy in coordination with the chief of the National Guard Bureau and the Pentagon's top personnel officer.

Austin's announcement comes after Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt requested that his Guard members be exempt from the vaccine mandate, arguing that as governor he has authority to allow members of his state's Guard to avoid the vaccine while they are under state control, not federal.

In a letter to Austin on November 2, Stitt wrote that the vaccine 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."

In explaining the consequence of choosing not to get vaccinated, Austin denied Stitt's request on Monday and said the governor's concerns "do not negate the need" to be vaccinated.

Austin's new vaccine policy will affect Guard members only when the vaccination deadline set by their service has been reached. The various military services have set deadlines that apply to active and reserve forces. Members of the Army Guard must be vaccinated by June while members of the Air Guard only have until December to get vaccinated.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has announced that National Guard members who decline the COVID-19 vaccination will be banned from drills and training that are required to maintain their guard status, losing their pay, retirement funds and other federal benefits. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Washington. Alex Brandon/Associated Press

When Guard troops are on state active duty, such as responding to local emergencies like flooding, they report to their governor and are paid by their state. But, during monthly or annual training or when they are responding to larger emergencies in the state, they are controlled by the governor but funded by the federal government. This is known as Title 32 status, which is distinct from situations in which Guard members may be called to active duty for federal service, known as Title 10 status.

The Pentagon considers the COVID-19 vaccines critical to maintaining a ready force—active and reserve—that can deploy when needed to protect the nation, and National Guard members are part of that force.

According to figures provided by the National Guard Bureau, 70 percent of Guard members had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine as of November 22 and 62.6 percent had been fully vaccinated. Those numbers may undercount vaccinations since some Guard members may have been vaccinated outside of the military system, with their records not yet fully updated.

Kevin Stitt, Oklahoma governor
The announcement comes after Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt requested that his Guard members be exempt from the vaccine mandate. Above, Stitt speaks during a roundtable discussion with former President Donald Trump in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, June 18, 2020. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images