Oklahoma Guardsmen Denied COVID Mandate Exemption, Despite 13 Percent Not Wanting Vaccine

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday denied Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt's request for the Oklahoma National Guard to not have to comply with the Pentagon's requirement that all military members be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Stitt sent Austin a letter earlier this month saying the requirement violated the Guard's personal freedoms. Stitt had also previously told Guard troops they were not required to get the shot.

A copy of Austin's response to Stitt was obtained by the Associated Press. He wrote that the concerns Stitt raised did not overrule the importance of the military readiness requirement. This includes being healthy enough to be able to jump into action at any moment.

According to Stitt's office, an internal survey found that over 1,000 Army and Air Force Guard members, about 13 percent of the state's 8,200 troops, have indicated they won't get the vaccine.

Austin wrote that all the members of the Guard "regardless of duty status," must follow the vaccine deadlines. He suggested Guard troops who refuse could lose federal status, which would impact their pay and benefits.

Stitt is the only governor to publicly challenge the military mandate, the AP reported.

Members of Oklahoma's Air Guard are first to be impacted; they have until December 2 to get vaccinated, per the Air Force. It's unclear how the Guard members who report for their monthly drill in December or January will be affected.

"Failure to do so may lead to a prohibition on the member's participation in drills and training" conducted under Title 32 of the U.S. Code, he said, "and jeopardize the member's status in the National Guard."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Lloyd Austin, Defense Secretary
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin denied a request for the Oklahoma National Guard to be exempted from COVID-19 vaccination mandates. Above, Austin pauses while speaking during a media briefing at the Pentagon on November 17 in Washington. Alex Brandon/AP Photo

The dispute is the first critical test of the military's authority to require National Guard troops to get the shot, and it could lay the groundwork for legal battles with states that oppose the vaccine requirement.

Stitt's spokeswoman, Carly Atchison, has said that about 89 percent of the state's Air Guard—estimated at more than 2,000 troops—has been vaccinated. A military official said that the Air Guard rate is expected to reach about 95 percent by the December deadline. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss statistics not yet public.

Austin's decision was widely expected, since the Pentagon has argued for months that the vaccine is critical to maintaining a ready force that can deploy on a moment's notice to protect the nation. Defense leaders say that as defense chief, Austin can set medical requirements for the military, including the Guard and Reserve, and that governors don't have the authority to relieve troops of those requirements.

Vaccines against a variety of diseases have long been required for troops, with some getting as many as 17 for deployments around the world. And defense officials warn that service members who refuse to comply will risk losing their National Guard jobs.

Still, the National Guard presents a unique case. When Guard troops are on state active duty, such as responding to local events, they report to the governor and are paid by the state. But during their monthly or annual training or when they are responding to larger disasters in the state, they are in what is called Title 32 status, and are controlled by the governor but funded by the federal government.

The Guard can also be activated for federal duty, including for overseas deployments, under a different status, called Title 10, that treats them like active-duty troops, under federal control and funding.

Retired Brigadier General J. Roy Robinson, president of the National Guard Association of the U.S., said in an interview that is it common for Guard soldiers to have gaps or delays in their annual or routine medical requirements. And he said they often will arrive for monthly drill or their annual two-week training needing various vaccines or medical and dental check-ups.

Robinson, however, said he believes that until a service member is activated in Title 10 status, and is under the control of the federal government, the state retains any authority for enforcing requirements, such as the vaccine.

According to Atchison, about 40 percent of Oklahoma's Army Guard members are vaccinated, but they have until next June to get their shots, under a deadline set by the Army.

Kevin Stitt, Oklahoma governor
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt's told his state's National Guard they did not have to comply with the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, against the Pentagon's wishes. 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