Defense

Oklahoma Guard admits vaccine refusal could end military careers

The head of the Oklahoma National Guard on Thursday acknowledged current law provides little cover for service members who refuse the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. 

“Anyone exercising their personal responsibility and deciding not to take the vaccine, must realize that the potential for career ending federal action, barring a favorable court ruling, legislative intervention, or a change in policy is present,” Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino wrote in a statement to the force.

While fiercely defending service members’ ability to use their “personal responsibility” and “the right to not take the vaccine,” Mancino notes that state authority is limited in protecting troops who opt out of the shot.

The letter comes amidst a heated and ongoing fight between the state of Oklahoma and the Defense Department over a coronavirus vaccine mandate for the National Guard, a battle that includes a federal lawsuit and the Pentagon threatening to withhold pay for service members.

The Pentagon in late August required vaccinations for all military personnel, allowing the services to set the deadlines for the ask. But in early November, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) pressed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to exempt his state’s National Guard from the vaccine mandate, which Austin refused.

Stitt also ordered a memo stipulating that no member of the Guard is required to get vaccinated, setting off a tit for tat with the Pentagon over who holds the authority to enforce the mandate.  

The National Guard is unique in that it falls under two authorities, the state and the federal government. The Guard operates under Title 32 of the U.S. Code when under a state governor, but when deployed by the federal government it is controlled by the president under Title 10.

Those two rules have been at the center of the argument, with Stitt previously insisting that he was in control of his guardsmen, even though troops are paid with federal funds when they receive training and education.

But Thursday’s letter seems to admit Stitt can’t ward off the mandate when troops are called up for drills or further school.

“It is important you do not mistake my vigorous defense of the Governor’s rights under Title 32 as a guarantee you will not face consequences from Title 10 authority. I have no such power,” Mancino writes.

“As I have said, continued service in the national guard will require connections with Title 10 authority. 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.” 

Mancino also revealed he is “fully vaccinated, plus the booster.”

“I believe the vaccine to be safe and effective against COVID-19 based on the millions of doses administered,” he said. 

Congress has also gotten in on the fight, with the House’s version of the annual defense policy bill containing a provision that would amend Title 10 to make sure that a service member who is kicked out of the military for declining the vaccine may only receive an honorable discharge.

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