The Oklahoma National Guard will not punish unvaccinated troops, despite a federal judge’s ruling this week that the federal government can mandate vaccines for Guard troops on state-level duty.
In a 29-page decision on Tuesday, Judge Stephen Friot of the U.S. District Court for Oklahoma’s Western District ruled rejected a lawsuit brought by Republican Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, which sought a preliminary injunction to halt military-wide COVID-19 vaccine mandate for Oklahoma National Guard troops.
Maj. Kristen Tschetter, a public affairs officer with the Oklahoma National Guard, told the Norman Transcript that despite the judge’s ruling, Stitt’s position on the vaccine mandate has not changed.
“We are really in the same holding pattern we’ve been in, and that is we continue to follow the governor’s policy, and wait,” Tschetter said. “… So the National Guard policy that the (Adjutant Gen. Thomas Mancino) put in place basically says that we aren’t going to remove people from service and we are not going to punish with administrative action for (being) unvaccinated.”
Stitt is one of seven state governors who have challenged the COVID-19 vaccine mandates. One key contention by Stitt — as well as Republican Governors Mike Dunleavy of Alaska, Kim Reynolds of Iowa, Tate Reeves of Mississippi, Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, Greg Abbott of Texas and Mark Gordon of Wyoming — is over what authority the federal military chain of command holds over the National Guard forces of the individual states when those forces are not mobilized under federal authorities.
In his decision, Friot wrote that while not “federalized” the governor’s authorities over a state’s National Guard force hold the title of commander in chief and their duties include “recruiting, training and pressing Guard units into service when necessary within the boundaries of the state.” Friot then said even when not “federalized,” federal officers such as the President of the United States, still “have the authority required to ensure that the Guard, as a statutory reserve component of the U.S. armed forces, is ready to be pressed into federal service without delay, and as seamlessly as possible, in case of need.”
Despite Friot’s ruling, Tschetter told the Norman Transcript that the Oklahoma National Guard is waiting for a “final legal decision,” and they will follow “whatever policy gets decided in that legal process.” Tschetter said until that final legal decision comes the Oklahoma National Guard is following Stitt’s order and awaiting his “further guidance.”
“I would err on the side of caution to say that it is the governor’s legal battle. It’s not the TAG’s (the adjutant general’s) battle,” Tschetter added. “The TAG is nonpartisan, non-political and he is a governor-appointed position. … The governor is the commander in chief while under Title 32 authority status. So all of the legal stuff is being done by the governor’s office, not from the National Guard.”
According to figures Tschetter provided to the Norman Transcript earlier this month, about 11 percent (about 250 members) of Oklahoma’s 2,280-member Air National Guard remain unvaccinated. About 60 percent (about 3,900 members) of the 6,500-member Oklahoma Army National Guard also remain unvaccinated ahead of the June 2022 deadline.