The new leader of the Oklahoma National Guard said none of its members will currently be required to become vaccinated for COVID-19, a step that contradicts with the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for the military.
Unless federally mobilized, the Guardsmen will not have to become vaccinated for COVID-19, according to an order issued Thursday by new Adjutant General Thomas Mancino. No negative administrative or legal action will be taken against Guardsmen who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine. Oklahoma command will continue to process federal vaccine waivers in accordance with the Department of Defense policy.
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt recently appointed Mancino to replace Adjutant General Michael Thompson, who had lead the Oklahoma National Guard since 2017, The Oklahoman reported. By comparison, Thompson had supported vaccination for most Guardsmen, with some exceptions.
"This policy is not anti-vaccine. I and the Governor are both vaccinated," Mancino said in a statement published on Saturday. "I encourage all our Oklahoma Guard Members to get vaccinated if they choose to do so. We want to educate and inform our Soldiers and Airmen so that they can make an informed decision regarding the DoD Vaccine Mandate."
Under Title 32, Congress established a dual framework for the National Guard, Mancino explained. The states receive federal funding in return for being made available to the federal government when called to active duty by the President. Under Title 32, the Oklahoma National Guard is a state-controlled and federally-funded entity and takes orders from the Governor and his designated chain of command. When mobilized by the President, under Title 10, the Oklahoma National Guard takes all orders from the President and his designated chain of command, Mancino said.
"Failing to follow the Governor’s lawful orders while on Title 32 would be both illegal, unethical, and against our sworn oaths. Nothing in this order prevents anyone from taking the vaccine," Mancino said. "Also, nothing in his order eliminates the Federal Requirement. The Governor is hoping for Federal Relief from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and in the interim has granted state relief from this requirement."
The governor on Oct. 22 issued an executive order voicing opposition to President Biden’s vaccination requirement for federal contractors, as Stitt noted, "vaccines work and are effective, but they should not be mandated by any government to free citizens."
Earlier this month, Stitt had also asked U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to suspend a requirement that Oklahoma National Guard members receive the COVID-19 vaccination, noting 800 soldiers, or 10% of the guard, had not yet been vaccinated for COVID-19 or don't intend to get the inoculations.
"The Governor’s request is with Secretary Austin for decision, and the National Guard Bureau has indicated it will conduct a legal review of our position," Mancino said. "The proper venue for the resolution of these issues is the Governor’s office, Congress, and the Federal Executive branch. Not the court of public opinion in the press or on social media."
"The clarified policy on COVID vaccinations for Oklahoma Army and Air National Guardsmen reflects the governor's ability to assert his command authority over the men and women of the Oklahoma National Guard while they are within the state's borders," Lt. Col. Geoff Legler, a spokesman for the guard, told The Oklahoman. "The clarification will allow our unvaccinated Guardsmen to continue to serve in Oklahoma without any negative repercussion, but it does not provide any protection should they need to attend any military school or training activity run by an active duty component or the Department of Defense."
In previous guidance, which was overruled by Mancino’s order, Thompson outlined potential penalties for Guardsmen who did not get vaccinated, including an inability to mobilize or receive training at federal military installations. He did, however, note that Stitt’s order prevented the Oklahoma Military Department from requiring state employees to be vaccinated or show proof of vaccination.
Stressing the vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing and reducing the severity of the virus, Thompson's guidance said, "All personnel will be given the opportunity to receive the vaccine. Uniformed members and Title 5 federal civilian employees who elect not to receive the vaccine will be counseled regarding the consequences of not being vaccinated. These consequences will depend on the individual's status."
"However, freedom is always the standard in Oklahoma," Thompson wrote. "Deciding whether to be vaccinated is ultimately a personal choice that each of us must make. This personal decision regarding vaccination, like any other, will have consequences."
Thompson’s resignation won’t completely take effect until Jan. 15, 2022.
"The governor had been exploring making a change for a number of months, and (Gen.) Thompson had submitted his resignation," effective in January, Stitt’s spokesperson Carly Atchison told The Associated Press. "Once the governor selected (Gen.) Mancino as his replacement, the governor decided to move up the timeline."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.