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The Pentagon must deal with the Oklahoma National Guard vaccine revolt

'This is Trumpism manifesting itself in the state Guard.'
Jeff Schogol Avatar
An Oklahoma Army National Guard soldier at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Jan. 17, 2021. (U.S. National Guard photo by Sgt. Anthony Jones)
An Oklahoma Army National Guard soldier at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Jan. 17, 2021. (U.S. National Guard photo by Sgt. Anthony Jones) Oklahoma Army National Guard Soldiers stand in formation after arriving at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Jan. 17, 2021. (U.S. National Guard photo by Sgt. Anthony Jones)

By refusing to abide by the Defense Department’s mandate that all service members get vaccinated for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the governor of Oklahoma and the head of the state’s National Guard have endangered the lives of countless troops and prolonged this miserable pandemic.

Yet Pentagon leaders do not seem to appreciate that this act of defiance is extremely dangerous, especially if other states follow suit.

Army Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, the Oklahoma National Guard’s newly installed adjutant general, recently issued a memo at the behest of Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt that exempts Oklahoma National troops from the Defense Department’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Stitt has framed the issue around “personal freedoms,” arguing in a Nov. 1 letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that the vaccine requirement forces Oklahoma National Guardsmen “to potentially sacrifice their personal beliefs in order to not lose their jobs.”

It is worth noting that Stitt has not raised objections to any of the other 17 vaccinations that service members are required to get for diseases such as Anthrax, Chickenpox, Polio, Rabies, Typhoid, and Measles, Mumps, and Rubella.

The governor also wrote that up to 800 Oklahoma National Guardsmen, or 10% of the entire force, have indicated they will refuse to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

A U.S. Soldier with the Oklahoma National Guard, stands watch along a perimeter fence near the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2021. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Anthony Jones)

“It is irresponsible for the federal government to place mandatory vaccine obligations on Oklahoma national guardsmen which could potentially limit the number of individuals that I can call upon to assist the state during an emergency,” Stitt wrote.

But Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at New York University Law School, described Stitt’s comments about protecting the personal freedoms of Oklahoma National Guard troops as a “dog whistle” that is meant to appeal to former President Donald Trump and his supporters.

“The provocation here is from the state,” said Fidell, president emeritus of the National Institute of Military Justice. “The federal government hasn’t provoked anybody. This is a health and welfare measure that everybody knows makes sense and people are resisting this for no good reason. This is politics by other means. This is Trumpism manifesting itself in the state Guard.”

While the Defense Department could force Oklahoma National Guard troops to comply with the vaccine mandate by putting them on federal orders, federal taxpayers would end up footing the bill, Fidell said.

The Pentagon has other options available to deal with National Guard troops who refuse to get vaccinated, including slowing their promotions and withdrawing their federal recognition, which affect their retirement benefits, he said.

“If the federal government plays hardball, which I think it should, these people are going to pay a penalty,” Fidell said.

U.S. Soldiers with the Oklahoma National Guard discuss troop assignments in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2021. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Rebecca Imwalle)

On Nov. 17, a defense official told reporters that the COVID-19 vaccine requirement is one of the conditions that National Guard troops must meet in order to maintain their federal recognition, but he indicated the Defense Department is not enthusiastic about exacting a penalty on Guardsmen who refuse to get vaccinated.

“It’s not a question of authorities necessarily to compel and punish people,” said the defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity per the Pentagon’s rules for the discussion. “It’s establishing a requirement in order to maintain readiness and to be able to be part of and participate in the National Guard.”

So far, defense officials have said little about how they could override Stitt and Mancino. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby has told reporters the Defense Department “will respond to the governor appropriately.”

“That said, Secretary Austin believes that a vaccinated force is a more ready force,” Kirby said at a Nov. 17 Pentagon news briefing. “That is why he has ordered mandatory vaccines for the total force, and that includes our National Guard, who contribute significantly to national missions at home and abroad.”

While Kirby’s words here are both calm and nuanced, they are not likely to change any minds in Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro appeared to waffle on the Marine Corps’ requirement that all active-duty Marines be vaccinated by Nov. 28 when he said recently that all unvaccinated Marines would not be separated on the day of the deadline.

This is not the time for the Pentagon to equivocate on vaccines. The COVID-19 outbreak has now cost the lives of more than 764,000 Americans, including 75 service members. Of the troops who have died from the disease, 28% belonged to the National Guard, which only makes up 19% of the entire military, according to the Washington Post.

The National Guard is constantly being mobilized in response to every type of problem imaginable, including natural disasters, protests, and the U.S. military’s mission to the southern border. National Guard troops have even driven school buses when needed. 

If the Guard is to continue to serve as the duct tape that can fix any problem, it needs every soldier and airman that it can muster. The COVID-19 vaccine will ensure that enough National Guard troops are ready the next time the nation dials 911.

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