National Guardsmen who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19 won’t be eligible for any federal training or pay, which includes monthly drill weekends, per a memo signed Tuesday by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Austin calls on the Army and Air Force secretaries to enforce his mandate by barring unvaccinated Guardsmen from attending any drill or training events, and withholding any federal funding that would pay Guardsmen for their participation.
“No credit or excused absence shall be afforded to members who do not participate in drills, training, or other duty due to failure to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19,” Austin wrote, which would render any unvaccinated Guardsmen in breach of their contracts and make them eligible for dismissal from the National Guard.
Austin put out the memo after formally denying the Oklahoma governor’s request to exempt that state’s National Guard soldiers and airmen from the Defense Department’s service member vaccination mandate.
The governor has also directed his adjutant general not to enforce any federal vaccine mandates when troops are in a state-controlled status, stoking worries that other states might try a similar effort in what has become a fierce political battle over mandatory vaccinations.
In the weeks since, Oklahoma’s government and DoD have gone back and forth over whether DoD has the authority to enforce its mandate when troops are not federally mobilized, in a Title 10 status.
The National Guard also operates under Title 32, a state-controlled federal activation, in which the governor is at the top of the chain of command, but units are using federal money to fund the activation at the behest of the president.
This includes mandatory drill weekends, the bread and butter of National Guard service. So even if Oklahoma’s adjutant general has directed his subordinates not to enforce the vaccine mandate, DoD is still within its rights to withhold drill pay, and the military departments are able to discharge noncompliant Guardsmen outside of their local chains of command.
Austin also directed the service secretaries to create similar policies with their Ready Reserve troops, who are likewise required to be vaccinated by Dec. 2 for the Air Force and June 30 for the Army. Published guidance is due by Dec. 6.
As of Tuesday, more than 95 percent of the Air Force’s roughly 180,000 reservists are at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19. The Army does not publish its vaccination data.
There may still be legal challenges to the vaccine mandate, but Austin’s memo puts to rest any questions about how the services will enforce the mandate. Rather than local commanders initiating separation, as will happen in the active-duty force, the military departments will be in charge of the consequences for non-compliant reservists.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.