On Monday, the Department of Defense publicly addressed Oklahoma’s move to reject the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its National Guard troops, asserting that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “has the authority to require these vaccines for all members of the force.”
Last week, Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino of the Oklahoma National Guard defied the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate, advising troops that they would not be penalized or punished for choosing not to take the vaccine.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters on Monday that Secretary Austin has that authority “to establish readiness requirements for all members of the Department of Defense and that includes the National Guard,” but said he didn’t want to “hypothesize about potential outcomes” relating to the Oklahoma National Guard’s refusal to apply to mandate.
Kirby said Austin believes “a vaccinated force is a more ready force,” noting that because National Guard troops still receive federal funding, the Defense Secretary “has those authorities.”
“And just take a look at what the National Guard has done in just the last year alone, from disaster relief, wildfires, hurricane relief to assisting literally in putting shots in the arms of their fellow Americans” Kirby continued. “They have been very, very busy. And they do meet key national security needs. So, it’s important for them to get these vaccines.”
When pressed on the federal government’s authority over states’ National Guard troops, Kirby responded firmly that the vaccine mandate is “a lawful order.”
“It is a lawful order for National Guardsmen to receive the COVID vaccine. It’s a lawful order and refusing to do that, absent of an improved exemption puts them in the same potential as active-duty members who refuse the vaccine,” Kirby said. “It’s a lawful order, and they and they are subject to that order.”
Oklahoma Gov. J. Kevin Stitt – who recently appointed Mancino — also sent a letter to Austin, requesting that the vaccine mandate be suspended for his state’s National Guard troops.
“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’s letter stated. “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.”
Kirby said Secretary Austin has not yet responded to Stitt’s request and would not speculate on “what actions we might or might not take.”