OKLAHOMA CITY — Unvaccinated Oklahoma Air National Guard personnel were allowed to participate in regularly scheduled drills over the weekend and were paid using federal funds despite an order from U.S.Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin that would block compensation for hundreds of Guard members who refuse to comply with the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Over the weekend, Gov. Kevin Stitt pledged that the Oklahoma National Guard soldiers and airmen participating in drills “will be paid.”
“President Biden isn’t holding active duty paychecks hostage right before Christmas, and I won’t let him do it to Guard members under my command,” Stitt wrote in a Facebook post.
Maj. Kristin Tschetter, with the Oklahoma National Guard, said U.S. Air Force officials had not yet promulgated the guidance to implement Austin’s new COVID-19 vaccine mandates ahead of the weekend drills, so the federal National Guard Bureau said the state could pay unvaccinated personnel using federal funds despite the Pentagon’s Dec. 2 COVID-19 vaccine deadline.
Tschetter said the service secretaries had until Monday to implement that guidance.
Stitt’s office also said Monday that no state funds were used to pay unvaccinated National Guard personnel and that “no funding has been pulled.”
Stitt, Attorney General John O’Connor and 16 unnamed Air National Guard members last week sued federal officials over the vaccine policy. Austin, who is among the defendants in the lawsuit, had doubled down regarding the vaccine requirement.
A memo last week signed by Austin ordered that no Department of Defense funding may be allocated for payment of duties performed under Title 32 for members of the National Guard who don’t comply with the vaccine mandate. It states that unless otherwise exempted, all members of the National Guard must be fully vaccinated by the deadlines established by the Army or Air Force in order to participate in drills, training and other duties.
It also says no credit or excused absence shall be afforded to members who do not participate in drills, training or other duties due to failure to be vaccinated.
Austin also sent a letter to Stitt earlier this week saying that he would not comply with the governor’s earlier request to suspend the mandatory vaccine requirement.
Stitt had requested Austin suspend mandatory vaccine obligations because it could potentially limit the number of individuals able to respond during an emergency and because the mandate “violates the personal freedoms of many Oklahomans, as it asks them to potentially sacrifice their personal beliefs in order to not lose their jobs.”
Stitt has remained defiant that as commander-in-chief of the Guard, he would take no administrative or legal action against thousands of Guard personnel who refuse to comply with the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate while under Title 32.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, noted that the federal government funds the National Guard, even under Title 32, so training operations that fall under Title 32 come under Austin’s purview, meaning Air and Army National Guard soldiers must comply with federal vaccination requirements. Officials have said that unvaccinated Oklahoma National Guard personnel wouldn’t be allowed to train, drill or contribute to operations under Title 10 or 32, which could lead to a decertification of their skill sets and result in them being no longer able to serve in the Guard.
Tschetter said last week that about 11% – or 250 servicemen and women out of the 2,280-member Air National Guard – remained unvaccinated. She said about 60% of the 6,500-member Oklahoma Army National Guard remained unvaccinated ahead of the June 2022 deadline.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.