Oklahoma Guard leader: Troops won’t be forced to take the COVID-19 vaccine

The Pentagon is reviewing a request from Oklahoma’s governor for an exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine requirement for National Guard troops.

For now, Gov. Kevin Stitt says the troops in his state won’t be forced to get the shot, citing his authority over them in all cases except when they are under federal jurisdiction.

Unlike the Army and Air Force reserves, the National Guard has a federal and a state mission — and a sometimes competing command structure.

The states receive federal funding in return for Guard troops being made available when called to active duty by the president. But they remain under state control — taking orders from their governor — until the Pentagon calls them up.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Mr. Stitt said vaccine mandates violate the “personal freedoms” of many Oklahomans.

More than 800 Oklahoma Guardsmen — about 10% of the state’s overall military force — haven’t received the vaccine and don’t plan on it. Forcing them out would be devastating to a state that relies on the National Guard’s help during natural disasters, the Republican governor said.

“It asks them to potentially sacrifice their personal beliefs in order to not lose their jobs,” Mr. Stitt wrote. “It is irresponsible for the federal government to potentially limit the number of individuals that I can call upon to assist the state during an emergency.”

On Sunday, Pentagon officials told The Washington Times they are aware of Mr. Stitt‘s request and a state memo saying Oklahoma National Guard troops wouldn’t be required to take the COVID vaccine under his authority.

“We will respond to the governor appropriately,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. “That said, Secretary Austin believes that a vaccinated force is a more ready force. That is why he has ordered mandatory vaccines for the total force — and that includes the National Guard.”

Army Maj. Gen. Mike Thompson, the former adjutant general of the Oklahoma Guard, was widely seen as supportive of Mr. Austin’s COVID mandate. His stance may have cost him his job: Mr. Stitt recently replaced him with Brig. Gen. Thomas H. Mancino, who quickly issued a memo saying no Oklahoma Guardsmen could not be compelled to take the vaccine and wouldn’t face any administrative or legal action over a refusal.

Gen. Thompson said his firing came as a surprise, but he acknowledged that he and Mr. Stitt didn’t see eye to eye on various issues.

“We butted heads on a couple of things that are, you know, a national issue right now,” he told a state radio program. 

Some Republicans on Capitol Hill also are pushing back against Mr. Austin’s mandate. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado said a heavy-handed federal requirement could prove detrimental to military readiness in the short and the long term.

“Many individuals who choose not to be vaccinated have had years of training and experience which cannot be easily or quickly replaced,” Mr. Lamborn wrote in a letter to Mr. Austin. “While our adversaries are closing the gap on our qualitative military edge, we cannot afford to lose these highly skilled and credentialed men and women in uniform.”

Oklahoma Guard officials denied that the new policy is “anti-vaccine.” Gen. Mancino said he has received the shot and encourages everyone in the Oklahoma Guard to do so if they choose.

“We want to educate and inform our soldiers and airmen so that they can make an informed decision regarding the (Defense Department) mandate,” he said in a statement. “Failing to follow the governor’s lawful orders (while under state control) would be both illegal, unethical and against our sworn oaths.”