Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott asserted the Pentagon has no authority to punish unvaccinated members of the state National Guard, joining other Republican governors who have called on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to withdraw or otherwise nullify the military’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate.
In a Thursday letter to Austin, Abbott wrote that the commander of the Texas National Guard – under the governor’s executive order – “will not punish any guardsmen” for not getting vaccinated, adding that it was “unconscionable” that the military would threaten to withhold federal dollars for unvaccinated members of the guard or discharge service members from the unit.
The Texas governor is just the latest to join an effort to overturn or retract the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate that began with Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma in early November. But the efforts are likely to be rebuffed by Austin, who rejected the earlier attempt.
Earlier this week, the five Republican governors of Wyoming, Alaska, Iowa, Mississippi and Nebraska made an argument similar to Abbott’s, insisting the Pentagon does not have the authority to mandate the Covid-19 vaccine for state National Guard units.
The governors asserted in their own letter to Austin that punishing or discharging Guard members and barring them from training while they operate under state-level orders are “beyond the constitutional and statutory authority” of the Pentagon.
A spokesman for the Office of the Secretary of Defense acknowledged receipt of the letters and said a response would be forthcoming.
All of the state leaders have pointed to the same issue: the governor is the commander in chief of a state National Guard unit when it is operating under state orders, known as Title 32.
Stitt tried to make the case for a vaccine exemption for his state’s Army and Air National Guard unit last month when he ordered the commander not to enforce the vaccine mandate.
But Austin denied that request, even when the Guard operates under Title 32 orders.
“The immediate vaccination against COVID-19 is an essential military readiness requirement for all components and units of the military, including the Oklahoma National Guard,” Austin wrote in response to Stitt.
A day later, Austin issued a memo warning that no Defense Department money would go to guardsmen who had not been vaccinated, and unvaccinated guardsmen would not be able to participate in training or be given excused absences.
The federal government funds National Guard units under federal orders, called Title 10, and the Title 32 state orders. In addition, National Guard members must meet federal military readiness requirements, including medical requirements, in the event that they need to deploy or be called up under federal orders.
Unvaccinated guardsmen can remain members of state militias or defense forces, which approximately 20 states and territories maintain. But, if they continue to refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19, the Pentagon has repeatedly warned that they may not be able to serve in a state National Guard unit.
The debate over vaccines within the military – and particularly within the National Guard – has thrust the Pentagon into partisan politics.
The military has vaccinated more than 97% of the active duty force, but that still leaves approximately 36,000 unvaccinated service members who could face discharge. The deadline for National Guard vaccination is the end of June.
Some National Guard units have a far lower vaccination rate, as Republican governors use the military vaccine mandate as a political cudgel to attack the Biden administration.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby dismissed the attempts to politicize the vaccine.
“While it may be a political issue in society, it’s not a political issue here in the United States military,” Kirby said at a press briefing Thursday. “It is a valid military medical requirement, and it is a lawful order to accept the vaccine, to take the vaccine, and that’s how we’re looking at this. We’re looking at this from the science, and we’re looking at it from the readiness perspective.”