Five Republican governors this week asked the Defense Department to exempt their Guardsmen from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, as friction between states and the Pentagon grows.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, governors from Wyoming, Alaska, Iowa, Mississippi and Nebraska conceded that Guardsmen can be ordered to be vaccinated on federal orders. But on state orders, which troops spend the bulk of their time under, the governors argue that service members are untouchable and do not have to follow federal military policy, saying, "setting punishment requirements for refusing to be Covid-19 vaccinated, and requiring separation from each state National Guard if unvaccinated are beyond your constitutional and statutory authority."
The request is the latest move by Republican officials to rebuke COVID-19 vaccines and pandemic-related mandates, which have become a rallying cry for the party and a part of escalating political fights ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
None of the governors raised issues with the more than a dozen other vaccines Guardsmen are required to have.
The governors' letter comes a month after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt made the same request, which was rejected by the Pentagon, with Austin saying Guardsmen refusing inoculation could have their paychecks withheld and eventually be booted from the force. Yet dismissing a service member is usually initiated at the unit level, and commanders were directed by Oklahoma not to take administrative action against unvaccinated troops. It is unclear how the Pentagon would enforce its threat, or whether it has the authority to do so.
Stitt fired back with a lawsuit against the Biden administration, saying that the Guard is under his control unless troops are placed on so-called Title 10 orders, which are typically reserved for federal deployments abroad. He insisted that airmen and soldiers under his command do not have to follow medical rules set by the Pentagon.
Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, adjutant general for the Oklahoma Guard, said in a statement last week that Stitt granted troops a "limited safe harbor" to not be subject to punitive actions from the Pentagon for refusing the vaccine. But he said that it is unclear how extensive the governor's authority is, saying that Congress or the courts would need to figure that out. He conceded that all troops in Oklahoma will likely have to get vaccinated if they want to continue their service.
"Continued service in the National Guard will require connections with Title 10 authority," Mancino said. "Such connections including training events, schools, and mobilizations are going to eventually force you out of that safe harbor, and subject you to title 10 authorities. This is reality."
Given the Guard's murky and centuries-old militia policy, its dueling obligations to both the state and federal government set up an unclear chain of command amid conflicting orders, which has never been fully articulated in court or military policy.
The pandemic recently reached a grim milestone of 800,000 deaths in the U.S. due to the virus.
As of Dec. 6, the most recent data from the National Guard Bureau, 66.2% of Guardsmen nationwide are fully vaccinated, above the 61% rate in the overall U.S. population. However, given that units do not automatically track inoculations from civilian clinics, the data may not be accurate and might be undercounting the actual vaccination rate.
Of that, the Army National Guard is 55.4% vaccinated with a June 2022 deadline before soldiers face dismissal from the force. The Air National Guard is 90.8% vaccinated and has already passed its Dec. 2 deadline.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.