Pentagon says Oklahoma National Guard must follow vaccine mandate

The Pentagon can require Oklahoma National Guard members to get the COVID-19 vaccine, despite the state’s highest-ranking military official insisting he will not mandate that members be inoculated, the Defense Department’s top spokesman said Monday. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinBelarusian president vows war if Russia, Belarus attacked Biden says he'll send troops to Eastern Europe in 'near term' Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon tells Russia to stand down MORE “has the authorities he needs to require this vaccine across the force, including the National Guard,” press secretary John KirbyJohn KirbyOvernight Defense & National Security — Inside Austin's civilian harm directive Pentagon pauses civilian vaccine mandate after federal court ruling Russia announces military exercises amid standoff with US, NATO over Ukraine MORE told reporters.

“It is a lawful order for National Guardsmen to receive the COVID vaccine. It is a lawful order,” Kirby later said. “Refusing to do that, absent an approved exemption, puts them in the same potential [for punishment] as active-duty members who refuse the vaccine.”

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Austin in mid-September mandated that all uniformed personnel get vaccinated for the coronavirus, although the deadline to do so varies by branch.

Last week, however, the newly appointed commander of the Oklahoma National Guard, Army Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, wrote in a memo that no member of the Oklahoma National Guard will be required to get vaccinated.

Mancino further wrote that “no negative administrative or legal action will be taken” against guardsmen who refuse to get vaccinated.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), who has vocally opposed vaccine mandates, said Wednesday he appointed Mancino to serve as the state’s adjutant general and National Guard commander, though he still has to be confirmed by the state Senate.

Stitt earlier this month also sent Austin a letter asking him to suspend the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate for members of the Oklahoma National Guard.

Kirby said Austin had not reached out to Stitt but will “respond appropriately.”

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He also said guardsmen are not shielded from the mandate under Title 32 — which allows governors to mobilize troops within their state — because they’re still federally funded when mobilized for federal active-duty military service.

Asked whether Austin plans to reach out to other governors to prevent a snowball effect of other state leaders also refusing to mandate the shot for their Guard troops, Kirby said the Pentagon chief had no plans to do so.

“If there's a snowball effect, we haven't seen it yet,” Kirby said. “If he feels like that’s a necessary thing to do, he certainly would. But it’s not something that he’s planning on doing right now.”