U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered all National Guard and Reserve service members to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face the loss of pay and other consequences, according to a memo released Tuesday.
The order comes amid a dispute between the Pentagon and the National Guard in the central U.S. state of Oklahoma over the Defense Department coronavirus vaccine mandate.
The memo, sent from Austin to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military service secretaries, the chief of the National Guard Bureau and the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said federal funds may not be used to pay for any duties carried out by unvaccinated troops who have not received a Department of Defense waiver.
The National Guard answers to both state governors and the president but are paid with federal funding for training and other activities necessary to maintain their Guard status.
Austin’s memo adds that National Guard service members who remain unvaccinated by the Army and Air Force vaccination deadlines cannot drill or train and will be penalized with unexcused absences, which will affect the days they accumulate for retirement.
“In some ways, the memo relieves stress for Oklahoma Guard members (because) it provides clear guidance and removes the question of which authority they should listen to,” Katherine Kuzminski, the director of the military, veterans, and society program at the Center for a New American Security, told VOA Wednesday.
The U.S. defense secretary required all service members to be vaccinated against COVID-19 earlier this year and left deadlines for vaccination compliance to the service branches.
But on November 2, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt asked Austin to rescind that requirement for the Oklahoma National Guard. He then appointed a new commander of Oklahoma’s National Guard, Brigadier General Thomas Mancino, who issued an updated COVID-19 vaccine policy last month saying guard members under his command would not have to be vaccinated.
Austin on Monday rejected Stitt’s request.
Air Force Guard and Reserve members have until Thursday to get vaccinated. Navy Reserve forces have a December 28 vaccination deadline, and Army Guard and Reserve forces have a June 30, 2022, vaccination deadline.
The vaccination deadlines for active-duty forces, depending on their military service branch, have either passed or are later this month.
Active duty troop data provided to VOA from the military service branches Wednesday showed 97% of the Air Force and Space Force, 97% of the Navy, 96% of the Army, and 95% of the Marine Corps are fully or partially vaccinated.
The Navy had previously said 99% of active-duty sailors were vaccinated, but Navy spokesperson Lt. Commander Andrew DeGarmo told VOA on Wednesday that “a recent review of the vaccination reporting and tracking system revealed discrepancies in the data that were appropriately corrected. Discrepancies included total force numbers and redundant entries.”
Navy sailors and Marines who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19 will be separated from the force and could lose some of their veterans’ benefits, according to policy issued last month.
When the Air Force deadline passed on November 2, about 10,000 active-duty members and Space Force guardians remained unvaccinated for COVID-19. The Air Force is still reviewing the thousands of religious exemption requests.
The Army’s vaccination deadline for active-duty troops is December 15.