The Air Force will, in essence, remove National Guardsmen who decline a COVID-19 vaccination from federal service, according to a policy published Wednesday.
The National Guard, spurred by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s announcement that he would not enforce the Defense Department’s vaccine mandate, has been at the center of questions over how DoD can carry out its mandate for state-controlled troops, and whether other governors might push out similar guidance in defiance of the federal government. So far, no other states have joined in.
“... the Secretary of the Air Force hereby withdraws consent for members not fully vaccinated to be placed on or to continue on previously issued Title 32 Active Guard and Reserve orders,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall wrote in a memo signed Tuesday.
Title 32, a federally-funded, state-controlled status, covers mandatory monthly drill and yearly training requirements. Without them, a Guardsman can’t continue to serve.
Oklahoma filed a lawsuit against DoD on Thursday, in an attempt to block federal enforcement of the mandate while troops are in a governor-controlled status.
The Air Force’s reserve component vaccination deadline passed on Dec. 2, with more than 23,000 airmen and guardians out of compliance. Kendall’s memo lays out the next steps.
For the Air National Guard, unvaccinated troops will be sorted into one of five categories by Dec. 31: Vaccinated, or in the middle of a vaccine regimen; medically exempt, or waiting for a request to be adjudicated; religiously exempt, or waiting for a waiver decision; administratively exempt, or waiting on a determination; or declined to be vaccinated.
Any unvaccinated airmen who haven’t submitted an exemption will be barred from any federally-funded drills or training and reassigned to the Individual Ready Reserve, a military component that doesn’t train or drill ― and thus receives no pay or benefits.
If exemption requests are denied, airmen have five calendars days to either get their first dose, submit an appeal, put in for retirement or be relegated to the IRR.
“Members will be subject to recoupment for any unearned special, incentive pays or certain training,” the memo continues.
What the policy doesn’t explain is how the Air Force will implement these rules for units in Oklahoma, where the governor and adjutant general have said they will not enforce the mandate.
So while active-duty leaders will flag their airmen to start the separation process, there is a question as to how the Air Force can enforce its policy with leadership who also refuse to comply with their responsibilities to report their unvaccinated troops.
One option would be for the Air Force to audit the vaccine records of its Oklahoma units, then suspend pay and transfer airmen to the IRR from the department level.
The Oklahoma Army National Guard will be another issue. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Dec. 1 ordered the military departments to create specific policy for handling the reserve components, with a Monday deadline for publication.
The Army is still working on its guidance, spokesman Lt. Col. Terence Kelley told Military Times on Wednesday.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT