Austin orders all National Guard, Reserve troops to get COVID-19 vaccine or face loss of pay

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies
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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered that all National Guard and Reserve service members be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face loss of pay, among other consequences, according to a memo released Tuesday.

The memo - which comes amid a battle between the Pentagon and the Oklahoma National Guard over a Defense Department coronavirus vaccine mandate - also says those who do not comply will be marked absent without cause from drills and training. Such a punishment would impact the days service members accrue towards retirement.

The memo, first reported by NBC News and obtained by The Hill, also makes clear the Pentagon can enforce the vaccine mandate even while Guardsmen are on state duty, a point Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) has argued against.

Austin's move is the latest in the Pentagon's push to have all Defense personnel vaccinated after he made the shot mandatory in late August. The Pentagon chief left it up to the secretaries of the military services to issue their own implementation guidance and timelines.

The Air Force set Dec. 2 as the deadline for Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve personnel, while the Army set a June 30 deadline for its reservists and guardsmen.

But Stitt on Nov. 2 wrote a letter to Austin, asking him to rescind the vaccine mandate for members of the Oklahoma National Guard. Shortly thereafter, he appointed a new adjutant general of his state's Guard and directed him to write a memo stipulating that he would not enforce the vaccine mandate.

Stitt argued that under Title 32 of the U.S. Code, a state or territory's governor holds the power to mobilize their guard members unless the troops are activated for a federal mission.

Austin on Monday rejected Stitt's request, and said all members of the Oklahoma Air and Army National Guard must follow the mandate "regardless of duty status."

The Pentagon has previously said Guard members are still required to get the shot, even while on state duty, as federal dollars pay for their routine training.

Austin's latest memo now makes clear the consequences for refusing the shot and how the Pentagon will implement them.

"Unless otherwise exempted in accordance with Department policy, all members of the National Guard must be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by the deadlines established by the Army or Air Force, as appropriate, or must subsequently become vaccinated, in order to participate in drills, training and other duty conducted under title 32, U.S. Code," the memo says.

Should the service members not comply, "no Department of Defense funding may be allocated for payment of duties performed," and "no credit or excused absence shall be afforded to members who do not participate in drills, training, or other duty."

The memo was sent to the service secretaries, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, the head of Pentagon personnel and the chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Austin also ordered the secretaries of the military branches and the Pentagon's personnel chief to issue policies and implementation guidance to apply to their Guard and Reserve members, to be published no later than Dec. 6.