Politics

Pentagon chief says guard who refuses vaccine can’t train

All members of the military should be vaccinated unless they obtain an official exemption for medical or other reasons.

The military services have set varying deadlines that apply to active and reserve forces. Members of the Air Guard must be vaccinated before December; Members of the army guard have until June. Austin’s policy will not affect Guard members until the vaccination deadline set by their department is reached.

Under federal law, members of the National Guard are required to assemble for exercises and participate in training a specific number of days per year.

Austin said members of the Guard who are not allowed to participate in exercises due to their refusal to be vaccinated will not be paid by the Department of Defense. And they will not receive a credit that would count towards retirement and other federal benefits. Austin asked department heads to implement this policy in coordination with the head of the National Guard Bureau and the top Pentagon personnel.

When Guard troops are on active duty in the state, for example in a local emergency such as flooding, they report to their governor and are paid by their state. But during monthly or annual training or when responding to larger emergencies in the state, they are controlled by the governor but funded by the federal government. This is called the Title 32 status, which is distinct from the situations in which members of the Guard may be called up to active duty for federal service, known as the Title 10 status.

In explaining the consequences of refusing the vaccine, Austin applied to the entire National Guard the same policy he established in response to Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt’s request that his members of the Guard be exempted from the vaccination mandate. Stitt argued that as governor, he had the power to allow members of the Oklahoma Guard to avoid the vaccine while under state control.

In a Nov. 2 letter to Austin, Stitt wrote that the warrant “violates the personal freedoms of many Oklahoma residents by asking them to potentially sacrifice their personal beliefs in order not to lose their jobs.”

In his response Monday, Austin rejected Stitt’s request and said the governor’s concerns “do not negate the need” for the vaccine. Oklahoma is so far the only state to say it can bypass Austin’s mandate.

The Pentagon considers Covid-19 vaccines essential to maintaining a ready force – active and standby – that can deploy when needed to protect the nation, and members of the National Guard are part of that force.

According to figures provided by the Bureau of the National Guard, 70% of the members of the Guard had received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine by November 22, and 62.6% had been fully vaccinated. These numbers may underestimate vaccinations, as some members of the Guard may have been vaccinated outside of the military system as their records are not yet fully updated.

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