Oklahoma National Guard rejects Pentagon's coronavirus vaccine mandate

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby pauses while speaking during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The Oklahoma National Guard has rejected the Defense Department's requirement for all service members to receive the coronavirus vaccine and will allow personnel to sidestep the policy with no repercussions, an order from the governor that could serve as a blueprint for other Republican-led states that have challenged Biden administration mandates.

Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, appointed this week by Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt as adjutant of the state's 10,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen, on Thursday notified those under his command that they are not required to receive the vaccine and won't be punished if they decline it.

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It's an extraordinary refusal of Pentagon policy by the general and follows Stitt's written request to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin seeking suspension of the requirement for Guard personnel in the state.

"We will respond appropriately," John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesperson, said of Stitt's letter. "That said, Secretary Austin believes that a vaccinated force is a more ready force. That is why he has ordered mandatory vaccines for the total force, and that includes our National Guard, who contribute significantly to national missions at home and abroad."

The governor installed Mancino after having removed the state's prior adjutant, Maj. Gen. Michael C. Thompson, who has advocated for his troops to get vaccinated against the coronavirus and last month publicized having received a booster shot. Carly Atchison, a spokesperson for Stitt, said Thompson's departure was unrelated to his stance on vaccine policy and that the governor had explored a change over the last few months.

The new vaccine policy, distributed the day after Thompson was relieved of his leadership post, was directed by the governor, Atchison said.

Thompson did not respond to messages seeking comment. He told the New York Times that he believed his ouster was politically motivated. "There's not another reason for it," the general said.

Stitt contracted the virus in July 2020 and was vaccinated in March. Along with other Republican governors and lawmakers, he has described Biden's vaccine mandates as "unconstitutional," declaring it a personal choice.

Overall Republican resistance to vaccine mandates has intensified in recent weeks, with multiple GOP governors filing suit to stop the requirement for federal contractors and a Friday court ruling temporarily halting the administration's directive that private businesses employing more than 100 workers require inoculation or impose onerous testing guidelines. Oklahoma's objection to the Pentagon's directive would appear to open another pathway for states to challenge the president's orders.

Mancino's new policy walks a line between a state's military orders, in which the governor acts as commander in chief for operations such as disaster relief, and federal military orders, in which Guard members carry out missions under the president's command. For now, it appears that Oklahoma Guard members can refuse the vaccine, but that they would be subject to the requirement if they are put on active duty for a federally mandated assignment, such as an overseas deployment.

A spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, speaking to the Stars and Stripes newspaper, characterized the move as "a legal gray area" and suggested there would be a review.

A senior official in the Oklahoma National Guard, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly, said that a recent survey of Guard members in the state showed that approximately 13% indicated they would not take the vaccine.

The official declined to address whether leadership of the Oklahoma National Guard was in step with Austin's belief that vaccination is imperative for military units to be ready for an emergency. The National Guard, like all of the military's active-duty components, requires personnel to be vaccinated against numerous other potential illnesses.

In most cases, deployments entail months of preparation, leaving ample time for those who aren't vaccinated now to be in compliance should they be called upon for assignments outside the state's borders, the official said. But the issue already has complicated deployments: The vaccination status of several rescue airmen posed challenges during the military's evacuation from Afghanistan in August, the Air Force has said.

A spokesperson for the Oklahoma National Guard did not address how many of its members are vaccinated. Combined, the entire Army National Guard, which faces a June deadline to comply with the Pentagon's mandate, is about 46% fully vaccinated. The Air National Guard is about 80% vaccinated ahead of its Dec. 12 deadline.

The National Guard has absorbed a disproportionate share of the 75 deaths among military personnel infected with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. National Guard members account for 28% of all covid-related deaths in the military, but they constitute only about 19% of the entire armed forces. The Army National Guard has the highest death toll across the services, according to Pentagon data.

Lindsay Cohn, a professor who studies civil-military relations at the Naval War College, said it appears the governor has pitted the state chain of command against the federal chain of command, and created a civil-military rift by attempting to use his authority over National Guard forces to make a public statement about the vaccine mandate.

Because the National Guard reports to state and federal officials, Cohn said, Army or Air Force leadership in Washington could pursue administrative action against anyone who resists the federal mandate. A governor, she said, cannot stop senior service officials from discharging people.

Still, the situation puts the Defense Department "in the very awkward position of pitting themselves against the governor and the still-powerful narrative" that the National Guard primarily belongs to the states, she said.

Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University and expert on civil-military relations, said it's not unprecedented for a governor to politicize his or her oversight of a state's National Guard personnel, but that replacing an adjutant general "so as to flout" the Pentagon's vaccine mandate is unhelpful. It's problematic for readiness, he noted, and sends a message to the public that the gap is widening between active-duty military forces and the reserve components.

"It is one more sign," Feaver said, "of corrosion in the professionalism that should be the hallmark of the total force."

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