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The Pentagon Chief denies Oklahoma National Guard vaccine exemption request

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Oklahoma Army National Guard photo by Pfc. Emily White
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Soldiers with the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team fire weapons during a training exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California on July 20, 2021.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says Oklahoma National Guard troops must be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Austin sent a letter to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt Monday, denying his request for an exemption to vaccine requirements for Oklahoma National Guard members.

"The concerns raised in your letter do not negate the need for this important military readiness requirement," Austin wrote.

All U.S. service members are required to get the COVID vaccine. Under the federal rules, National Guard members could face disciplinary action if they refuse.

A Stitt spokesperson told the Associated Press on Monday that the governor "maintains his position" that he is commander in chief of the Oklahoma National Guard while they are on Title 32 status, or active duty under state control.

The crux of Oklahoma's argument is that under Title 32, the governor issues instructions when Guard troops operate under the state's authority. They claim that only after being mobilized by the President and operating under Title 10 would they then be subject to the federal requirement.

But, the Pentagon disagrees.

"National Guard, as you know, even under Title 32 is funded by the federal government. So, training operations that come under Title 32, much less Title 10, come under the Secretary's purview," Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said during a press briefing on Monday. "So, one could elect not to take the vaccine, of course, but then you would be putting at jeopardy your ability to stay in the National Guard."

Kirby said by not taking the vaccine, troops would not meet a mandatory readiness requirement. This could lead to individuals being denied training.

"They wouldn't be allowed to train. They wouldn't be allowed to drill. They wouldn't be allowed to contribute to operations under Title 10 or Title 32," Kirby said. "That could lead to potential decertification of their skill sets, whatever that is. And, of course, that could lead to no longer being able to serve in the National Guard."

National Guard troops receive pay and benefits from the federal government. If they are not allowed to train or drill, Kirby later followed up, that individual would also not be paid by the federal government.

Stitt is, so far, the only governor to publicly challenge the military's vaccine mandate.

The Pentagon's vaccine requirement went into effect in August. Guardsmen must be vaccinated by June 2022 — the latest of all military vaccine deadlines. If they are going to deploy, that deadline is as early as Dec. 15.

Ryan Gaylor is a freelance reporter.
Ryan LaCroix is the Director of Content and Audience Development for KOSU.
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