Unvaccinated Airmen from the Oklahoma Air National Guard who don’t have an approved or pending religious or administrative accommodation to the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate are no longer allowed to drill, the state’s adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Thomas H. Mancino, announced.
Mancino, who assumed control of the Oklahoma Guard in November, quickly issued a memo at the time stating that no member of the Oklahoma National Guard, including the state’s Air National Guard, would be required to take the vaccine, according to The Oklahoman.
Mancino defended the move by saying that while the Guard is on Title 32 status—under command and control of the state government but federally funded—they must follow orders from Gov. Kevin Stitt, who is not requiring the vaccine. That would change, Mancino indicated, if the Guardsmen were activated under Title 10 orders, which puts them under federal control.
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby rejected that claim, though, in a Nov. 15 press briefing, saying that Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III had the authority to mandate the vaccine for the National Guard, even on Title 32 status, because “when they’re called up for their monthly training, they’re still federally funded.”
In a background briefing two days later, a senior Pentagon official seemed to reference section 323 of Title 32, which details how federal recognition can be withdrawn from a Guard member who fails to meet the “qualifications prescribed by the Secretary,” as DOD’s legal justification for pushing the vaccine mandate.
A subsequent memo from Austin indicated that the Pentagon would not pay Guardsmen who refuse the vaccine.
On Dec. 2, the Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General filed a federal lawsuit seeking an injunction against the vaccine mandate. The lawsuit also sought to stop the Pentagon from denying funds to the Oklahoma National Guard. As part of that filing, the state said that roughly 89 percent of its Air National Guard unit had been vaccinated.
On Dec. 28, however, a federal judge denied the request for a temporary injunction, saying “the court is required to decide the case on the basis of federal law, not common sense. But, either way, the result would be the same.”
In a message to the Oklahoma ANG, Mancino noted that in light of that denial, “it is our duty to follow a ruling once made.” As a result, Airmen who aren’t vaccinated, don’t have an approved or pending accommodation request, or haven’t said they wish to be vaccinated won’t be able to participate in monthly drills. These rules will only apply to Airmen, as the Army National Guard’s deadline for vaccination isn’t until June.
Oklahoma isn’t the only state seeking to challenge the DOD’s vaccine rule—Governors from Alaska, Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Wyoming penned a joint letter released Dec. 14 echoing Oklahoma’s argument that while Guardsmen are on Title 32 status, they are under the command and control of the state government.
That letter, however, only asked Austin to withdraw his order that Guardsmen not be paid if they are not fully vaccinated. Oklahoma is thus far the only state to challenge the order in court.
An Oklahoma National Guard spokeswoman told Air Force Magazine on Jan. 3 that according to the most recent data from last week, roughly 97 percent of the 2,200 or so Airmen in the Oklahoma ANG are either vaccinated or have a pending/approved accommodation request, putting the number of Airmen affected by the new order around 60.
Across the broader Department of the Air Force, 91.5 percent of the Air National Guard is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 according to Dec. 22 data, with another 0.8 percent partially vaccinated. Roughly 0.3 percent are seeking religious accomodations, and another 0.2 have received administrative or medical exemptions. Just 0.12 percent of Airmen in the Guard have verbally refused the vaccine.
At the same time, DAF is taking steps to encourage Airmen and Guardians to get the COVID-19 vaccine booster shot, as case counts reach record highs. On Dec. 30, the department announced it was authorizing a four-hour pass for service members to get the booster, which is not required. Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones said department leaders “strongly encourage all Airmen, Guardians, and DAF federal employees to receive a booster.”