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More governors rally to resist Pentagon vaccine mandate over National Guard troops

The Pentagon consistently has doubled down when asked about the individual state Guard challenges to federal authority regarding the vaccine.

Published: December 28, 2021 7:24pm

Updated: December 28, 2021 11:05pm

Republican governors increasingly are resisting a Pentagon-issued COVID-19 vaccine mandate that seven state leaders now say cannot be imposed on their National Guard troops.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is the latest state executive to tell the Pentagon that it does not have the authority to impose the controversial mandate on state-controlled troops. Others include Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts - along with the first to rebel, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt.  

Five governors wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this month, telling him that Pentagon threats to punish non-compliant National Guard troops are "beyond your constitutional and statutory authority."

Austin stirred controversy throughout the military when he announced in August that all members of the U.S. armed forces must be vaccinated against COVID-19. Austin assigned each military service to set its own cutoffs for compliance. The furthest deadline was set by the Army National Guard and Reserve, imposing a June 30 deadline.

The Pentagon met unexpected resistance first from Stitt, who in November asked Austin to suspend the vaccine mandate for members of the Oklahoma National Guard. 

Stitt at first presented the request as an appeal.

"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," the Oklahoma governor wrote Nov. 1 to Austin.

"This mandate violates the personal freedoms of many Oklahomans, as it asks them to potentially sacrifice their personal beliefs in order to not lose their jobs," Stitt wrote. "All of our national guardsmen take this calling very seriously. These are patriotic citizens who are willing to put their lives on the line to protect others in our communities during times of greatest need."

Austin held firm, insisting that all National Guard and Reserve members be vaccinated, under threat of being barred from training and from being paid.

"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 in a memo to military service secretaries and other leaders. 

The resistance then spread among Republican governors.

“It’s unconscionable to think the government will go so far as to strip these honorable men and women of the nation’s top duties if they don’t comply,” Iowa's Reynolds wrote in a Dec. 14 statement. “They protect the very freedoms that the federal government apparently doesn’t believe they too deserve."

Two days later, Abbott signed on to the resistance on behalf of his Texas troops. Abbott wrote to the Pentagon condemning the vaccine mandate, and declared that he will not enforce it on his state's National Guard.

In the Dec. 16 letter, Abbott told Austin that the governor - not the DoD - is in charge of the Texas guard, and that Abbott is prepared to take legal action in response to federal threats.

"As Governor of Texas, I am the commander-in-chief of this State’s militia," Abbott wrote. "In that capacity," he noted, he had ordered his top Guard commander not to enforce the federal mandate.

"If unvaccinated guardsmen suffer any adverse consequences within the State of Texas, they will have only President Biden and his Administration to blame," Abbott declared. "The State of Texas will not enforce this latest COVID-19 vaccine mandate against its guardsmen."

Abbott countered Pentagon warnings with one of his own.

"If the federal government keeps threatening to defund the Texas National Guard, I will deploy every legal tool available to me as Governor in defense of these American heroes," Abbott wrote.

The Pentagon consistently has doubled down when asked about the individual state Guard challenges to federal authority regarding the vaccine.

Spokesman John Kirby last week hinted that the highest levels of state Guard authority could be prosecuted for not enforcing the mandate.

"It's our expectation that the chain of command for every Guardsman, just like the chain of command for every active duty member of the armed forces… will manage the mandatory vaccine requirement appropriately, and if they don't, then they too can be held to account under the UCMJ for failure to obey a lawful order," Kirby on Dec. 21 told reporters at the Pentagon.

The vaccine mandate is non-negotiable for people serving in uniform, Kirby said.

"It is a lawful order, it is a valid military requirement to get the vaccine, and it does apply, as we've said before, to members of the National Guard," he said.

Kirby did not specify whether the government planned to prosecute the governors. He referred journalists seeking clarification to the National Guard Bureau, which acts as a channel of communication to governors and their Adjutants General on matters pertaining to the National Guard.

The bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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