By Ellie Kaufman and Oren Lieberman | CNN
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin rejected a request from Oklahoma’s governor to exempt his state National Guard members from the Pentagon’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate.
Austin stressed that the vaccine mandate is a legal order that promotes “the health, safety and preparedness of our military personnel regardless of service status” in the letter, of which CNN received a copy.
The letter added that members of the National Guard who are not vaccinated may be banned from “participating in exercises and training” and their status in the service may be jeopardized.
But Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt did not appear to be ready to resign. In response to Austin’s letter, a spokesman for Stitt said the governor “appreciates” the letter, but “maintains his position that the governor is commander – in – chief of all members of the Oklahoma National Guard while on state orders.”
In early November, Stitt sent a letter to Austin asking him to suspend vaccine claims to the Oklahoma National Guard. He said the mandate “violates the personal freedoms of the guard members and potentially requires them to” sacrifice their personal convictions “.
Austin rejected these arguments. “The concerns raised in your letter do not negate the need for this important military contingency requirement,” the Secretary of Defense wrote.
The argument over the vaccine requirement led to a dispute over the limits of federal government authority and the military command route.
Stitt ordered Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, the newly appointed head of the Oklahoma National Guard, for failing to enforce the vaccine mandate. Mancino, who acknowledged that it put him in an awkward situation, said that under state orders, his commander was the governor. But he also said that if the guard was called in under federal orders, called Title 10, he would enforce the vaccine requirement.
A defense official who briefed reporters on the issue said members of a National Guard unit, even under state orders, called Title 32, are still required to meet federal mission requirements, including medical requirements such as vaccine mandates.
Guard members who refuse to be vaccinated risk losing their status in the National Guard and the federal salary that comes as part of training, drills and more.
Both Section 32 and Section 10 are paid for by the federal government, not the states.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said no other governor has made similar requests during a Pentagon briefing on Monday.
Kirby reiterated the points Austin made in the letter, saying that not being vaccinated could put National Guard members at risk of losing their status.
“So of course you could choose not to take the vaccine, but then you would jeopardize your ability to stay in the National Guard, which as you know is also part of the reserve component of the overall force,” Kirby said. “But in the details of how it would go, I will refer you in this case specifically to the Oklahoma National Guard to speak with.”