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The Pentagon's top spokesperson on Monday insisted Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had the authority to require National Guard members to get vaccinated against Covid-19, despite new resistance from Oklahoma's highest-ranking military official.
"It is a lawful order for National Guardsmen to receive the Covid vaccine. It is a lawful order," Defense Department press secretary John Kirby told reporters at a news briefing.
"Refusing to do that, absent an approved exemption, puts them in the same potential [for disciplinary action] as active-duty members who refuse the vaccine," he added.
Kirby also argued that Guard members would not be shielded from the Pentagon's vaccine mandate under Title 32 of the U.S Code, which provides for governors to mobilize the Guard within their state.
Under Title 10 of the U.S. Code, by contrast, Guard members are mobilized for federal active-duty military service.
"The secretary of Defense has the authority to require these vaccines for all members of the force, including the National Guard … even in a Title 32 status," Kirby said. "Because when they're called up for their monthly training, they're still federally funded."
Kirby's defense of the Pentagon's forcewide vaccine mandate comes after Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, the adjutant general for Oklahoma, notified the state's National Guard soldiers and airmen that they would not be required to get their shots.
As adjutant general, Mancino serves as the top military adviser to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and commands the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard.
Stitt, a Republican, appointed Mancino to the post last week after ousting the previous adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Michael C. Thompson, who supported vaccinations for Guard members.
Stitt became the first governor to test positive for Covid-19 last July, less than a month after his state hosted then-President Donald Trump's first pandemic-era rally in Tulsa.
Now, Stitt's efforts to skirt the Pentagon's vaccine mandate have provoked concerns about governors of other red states potentially ordering their own National Guards against complying with the federal requirement.
On Monday, Kirby said he was not aware of any states other than Oklahoma reaching out to the Pentagon with concerns about the vaccine mandate. He also said Austin did not have plans to make contact with individual governors to reinforce the requirement.
"If there's a snowball effect," Kirby said, "we haven't seen it yet."