Pentagon rejects Oklahoma's request to exempt Guard from vaccine mandate

The Pentagon has rejected a request from Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) to exempt his state's National Guard from the Department of Defense's vaccine mandate.

In a letter to Stitt shared with The Hill, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said all members of the Oklahoma Air and Army National Guard must follow the mandate "regardless of duty status."

Failure to get vaccinated "may lead to a prohibition on the member's participation in drills and training... and jeopardize the member's status in the National Guard," Austin wrote, adding that Stitt's concerns "do not negate the need for this important military readiness requirement." 

Austin's response is the latest in the Pentagon's dispute with the Oklahoma National Guard, which went rouge earlier this month regarding the vaccine mandate.

Charlie Hannema, a spokesperson for Stitt, told The Hill in a statement that the governor "appreciates that Secretary Austin responded to his letter and maintains his position that the governor is the commander-in-chief for all members of the Oklahoma National Guard while they are on Title 32 status." 

The Oklahoma National Guard referred The Hill to Stitt's office for comment. 

The Department of Defense hasn't received similar requests from other governors, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters on Monday.  

Stitt wrote a letter earlier this month asking Austin to scrap the mandate, arguing that it "violates the personal freedoms of many Oklahomans, as it asks them to potentially sacrifice their personal beliefs in order to not lose their jobs." 

Austin officially mandated that all troops had to be vaccinated in September, though deadlines to comply with the mandate vary by branch.

The Air Force set a Nov. 2 deadline for active-duty airmen to be vaccinated, but Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve personnel have a Dec. 2 deadline to be vaccinated. The Army set a Dec. 15 deadline for active-duty personnel to be vaccinated, but the deadline for reservists and National Guardsmen is June 30.

Shortly after Stitt asked Austin to exempt the Oklahoma National Guard from the mandate, Oklahoma National commander Army Brig. Gen. Thomas Maciano, wrote a memo stipulating that no member of the guard would be required to get vaccinated.

The back-and-forth have brought two federal laws at the center of attention. One law, Title 32 of the U.S. Code, stipulates that a state or territory's governor holds the power to mobilize their guard members unless the troops are activated for a federal mission.

But under Title 10, the president could mobilize the guard, placing them under federal authority.

 Kirby said guardsmen who don't get vaccinated wouldn't be allowed to train or drill under either statute.

"That could lead to potential decertification of their skill sets," he said. And of course, that could lead to no longer being able to serve in the National Guard." 

Updated 10:25 a.m.