Pentagon digs in on vaccine mandate for Oklahoma National Guard

Oklahoma National Guard troops will not be allowed to avoid the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, the Pentagon says, but it is unclear who will hold them accountable to the rule and what punishments, if any, will be handed down.

A Defense Department official on Wednesday reiterated the department's message that it has the authority to mandate vaccines for troops in the name of medical readiness, a response to Oklahoma leaders who have stood firm in their vow that they will not enforce the vaccine mandate for their guard members.

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense & National Security — Preparing for the Biden-Putin call Five things to know about Russia's troop buildup near Ukraine  Austin warns Congress of 'enormous' negative effects of yearlong stopgap bill MORE “can establish a medical readiness requirement that applies to members of the National Guard,” the official told reporters, adding that if members fail to maintain such readiness, “it could jeopardize their status in the National Guard.”

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“Whether or not a governor enforces that under his or her own authority is another matter, but [it] in no way relieves members of the National Guard from compliance with medical readiness requirements established by the secretary of defense and the secretaries of the military departments.”

Austin announced in August that the coronavirus shot would be mandatory for all troops and in mid-September placed the mandate into effect, though the deadline to receive the inoculation varies by branch.

The National Guard’s deadline is June 30, but the Air Force and Army require guard airmen and troops to comply by Nov. 2 and Dec. 15, respectively, to allow them to be mobilized on federal orders.

The Oklahoma National Guard went rogue, however, when earlier this month it rejected the mandate after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) unexpectedly ousted its previous head. In their place, Stitt appointed Army Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino to serve as the state’s adjutant general and National Guard commander. He then directed Mancino to pen a memo that stipulated no member of the Oklahoma National Guard will be required to get vaccinated.

At the center of the issue are two separate laws: Title 32 of the U.S. Code, which stipulates that a state or territory’s governor holds the power to mobilize their guard members unless those troops and airmen are activated for a federal mission; and Title 10 of the U.S. Code, where the president can mobilize the guard, placing them under federal authority.

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Stitt’s reasoning is that, as head of his state’s guard, he holds the power to enforce policies while troops are on state duty.

“Until a guardsman is activated under Title 10, they follow the lawful commands of the governor of the state of Oklahoma, who has not mandated the [COVID-19] vaccine for Oklahoma Guard members,” the state’s guard said in a statement Saturday.

But Pentagon press secretary John KirbyJohn KirbyOvernight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill Biden to offer warning to Putin Overnight Defense & National Security — Preparing for the Biden-Putin call MORE said Tuesday that guard members, while under Title 32, still must meet federal requirements to go to schools, train and deploy.

“The secretary has the authorities he needs, obviously, to set mission requirements for defending this nation and the vaccine mandate is within those authorities,” Kirby told reporters.

It is still unclear, however, how the Pentagon can force Oklahoma National Guard members to get vaccinated and how it can hold troops and their chains of command accountable.

“I’m not going to speculate on how any actions might actually be taken by the department in the future,” the Defense official said Wednesday.