Tennessee governor presses Pentagon on National Guard vaccine exemptions

AP Photo/Mark Zaleski
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State address in the House Chamber of the Capitol building, Jan. 31, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) is pressing the Department of Defense to approve requests for exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate made by his state’s National Guard.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin obtained by The Hill, Lee says his state’s Guard has recommended approval for Guard members and are awaiting final decisions from Army and Air Force officials.

“Our force is medically ready, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status, and has proven this even as the science on COVID-19 changed drastically,” Lee wrote.

“Rejecting these exemptions would be a choice to reduce the force at the risk of both our state preparedness and our national security,” he added.

The deadline for Army National Guard members to be vaccinated was June 30, while Air National Guard members had until December to be in compliance.

The Army said last Friday that unvaccinated Guard and reserve personnel will not be allowed to participate in federally funded training and won’t receive pay or retirement credit.

Multiple Republican governors have pressed the Pentagon to end the mandate altogether, arguing that Austin had no authority to implement the mandate when the Guard is under individual state control as opposed to operating under federal orders.

Most recently, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) wrote a letter asking the defense chief to “indefinitely postpone” implementation of the mandate.

Lee’s letter comes a week after a group of Tennessee National Guard members who feared being discharged held a demonstration urging him to take action over the mandate. At the time, the governor’s office told Fox 17 Nashville that no one would be terminated based on vaccination status.

A spokeswoman for Lee told The Hill that the governor still has no plans to terminate unvaccinated Guard members.

“As you know, the COVID-19 vaccine mandate is a DoD requirement, but we have approved every exemption request at the state level and are advocating for the same exemptions federally,” the spokeswoman said.

According to data from the Army released Friday, 89 percent of National Guard members have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine and 87 percent are fully inoculated.

Over 12,000 Guard members have refused the vaccine, but none have been separated.

Meanwhile, over 7,000 temporary exemptions have been approved for Guard members, while only six medical exemptions have been granted, and no religious exemptions have been given.

Lee says his state’s National Guard is 93 percent vaccinated, but that those seeking exemptions are “expressing their genuinely held beliefs, not a dishonorable defiance of orders.”

The governor noted that he deployed over 1,700 personnel to Washington, D.C., to secure the 2021 Presidential Inauguration following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. He also said that 300 Tennessee Guardsmen recently concluded a mission at the Southern Border.

“This is not just a few disposable positions: this is a matter of force readiness that is keeping with our role as the nation’s ‘Volunteer State.’”

Tags Bill Lee Bill Lee covid-19 restrictions Department of Defense Glenn Youngkin Lloyd Austin Lloyd Austin Tennessee Tennessee National Guard vaccine mandate
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