Oklahoma Guard Paychecks Under Threat as Vaccine Battle with Pentagon Escalates

COVID-19 vaccine for an Oklahoma Army National Guard Soldier
A U.S. Air Force medical technician prepares to administer a COVID-19 vaccine for an Oklahoma Army National Guard Soldier at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Norman, Okla., Jan. 15, 2021. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Andrew M. LaMoreaux)

Oklahoma National Guard members who refuse mandatory COVID-19 vaccination will eventually lose pay because they won't be able to train or drill, the Pentagon said this week as its dispute with the state's governor continued to escalate.

Those individual troops will shoulder the repercussions -- not getting paid -- after Gov. Kevin Stitt and his state adjutant general challenged Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's order that all members of the active-duty, Guard and reserve force get the shot, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Monday.

But the governor's office shot back on Tuesday, questioning the Pentagon's ability to cut pay to individual service members. It was unclear how the federal pay for unvaccinated members could be flagged and withheld, and the Pentagon did not provide further details.

"With all due respect to Mr. Kirby, I think perhaps he has received incorrect information," Charlie Hannema, a spokesman for Stitt, told Military.com. Hannema and a spokesperson with the Oklahoma Guard said there is no change in the state's plan to defy the vaccine mandate.

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About 40% of the state's 6,200 Army Guardsmen are fully vaccinated ahead of a June 2022 deadline, and 89% of its 2,000 Air National Guard members have complied with the vaccine mandate ahead of their Thursday deadline, according to the state Guard.

Austin sent a formal letter on Monday afternoon, denying Stitt's earlier written request that Guard members be exempted from the military-wide vaccination requirement. Newly appointed Adjutant General Thomas Mancino told the Guard troops earlier this month that they don't have to get a shot as long as they are serving inside Oklahoma.

At least five other states are looking into following Oklahoma's lead, according to Stitt's office. A spokesperson for the Texas National Guard told Military.com that "vaccine guidance is pending further review."

But none has requested an exemption yet for the National Guard, according to the Pentagon. The battle over the Guard comes amid a larger political debate over vaccine mandates for civilian, health-care and federal workers.

"They wouldn't be allowed to train, they wouldn't be allowed to drill, they wouldn't be allowed to contribute to operations under Title 10 or Title 32," Kirby said, referring to types of troop orders in the U.S. Code, during a press briefing at the Pentagon. "That could lead to potential decertification of their skill sets, whatever that is, and of course, that could lead to no longer being able to serve in the National Guard."

The Pentagon had said repeatedly over the past two weeks that refusing vaccination could jeopardize Guard members' ability to serve, but Kirby's comments Monday were the first time it has been specific that that could mean withheld pay.

However, it was unclear what mechanisms would allow DoD to track unvaccinated troops and withhold their pay. Personnel and pay systems are mostly handled at the state level. Also, troops flagged under other circumstances, such as failing a fitness test, are not typically denied pay.

As it battles with the Pentagon, Oklahoma could call up troops under state active duty for monthly training to avoid the federal pay issue. But doing so would tap into the state's budget, change the size of troops' paychecks, and preclude them from accruing benefits like the GI Bill and accessing the Department of Veterans Affairs if injured on duty.

The National Guard serves under the governor's command unless activated for federal duty, which is mostly reserved for overseas deployments. The federal government covers pay for Guard troops, effectively funding every state's go-to emergency response force in exchange for combat forces that comply with Defense Department standards and can be deployed federally when needed. The standards include more than a dozen required vaccines.

In the Army, soldiers cannot yet be discharged from service if they refuse to be inoculated, but they will be flagged and effectively barred from continuing their service beyond their current contract and promotions.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has already removed troops who refused to be vaccinated and did not have a valid religious or medical exemption, meaning Air Guard troops could quickly face career-ending repercussions as well.

The National Guard Bureau reported 54.4% of Army National Guard and 88.4% of Air National Guard troops had been fully vaccinated as of Nov. 22. The reported rates may be lower than the actual numbers, because units do not automatically track inoculations received from civilian sources like a CVS. It is up to those Guardsmen to report their vaccination status to their units.

-- Travis Tritten can be reached at travis.tritten@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: Army Expects Guard Soldiers to Get the Vaccine by December If They're Going to Deploy

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