Showdown at the COVID Corral Continues for Oklahoma Guard

November 16, 2021Maggie BenZvi
oklahoma national guard vaccine showdown

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during a Congressional hearing. Oklahoma’s governor has requested that Austin exempt the state’s National Guard from COVID mandates. Oklahoma Guard Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, right, issued an order that the mandate not be enforced. Department of Defense photos.

So far, the Pentagon is avoiding any showdown at the OK COVID Corral.

A Department of Defense spokesman would not speculate Monday, Nov. 15, on possible Pentagon reaction to last Friday’s move by the governor of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma National Guard to buck the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Defense Department press secretary John Kirby avoided answering several questions on the subject at a press briefing on Monday. “I don’t want to hypothesize about potential outcomes here,” he said.

According to the Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Performance Report available on the Oklahoma Senate website, the Oklahoma National Guard received almost $60 million in federal funding in 2021. Kirby declined to say whether there would be funding repercussions for the Oklahoma National Guard, instead choosing to reiterate the importance of the vaccination program to military readiness. “A vaccinated force is a more ready force,” he said.

Navy hospitalman Lionel Dejesus prepares for COVID-19 vaccine administration Aug. 13, 2021, on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jacob Sippel.

But Kirby did specifically refute a claim by Oklahoma’s top general that a governor has the authority to override DOD guidance for members who are in their home state, not federally activated, a status governed by federal rules known as Title 32. Federalized guard members fall under rules known as Title 10.

“The secretary of defense, as well as the service secretaries, have the authority to establish readiness requirements for all members of the Department of Defense, and that includes the National Guard in a Title 32 status,” said Kirby. “When they’re called up for their monthly training, they’re still federally funded, so he has that authority.”

The tiff began when Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin asserting his authority to countermand the federal mandate, citing surveys Stitt claimed showed that roughly 10% of the Oklahoma Guard would refuse the vaccine.

“It is irresponsible for the federal government to place mandatory vaccine obligations on Oklahoma national guardsmen which could potentially limit the number of individuals that I can call upon to assist the state during an emergency,” Stitt wrote. The governor’s office had not responded to Coffee or Die Magazine’s request for a source for that estimate at the time of this article’s publication.

Oklahoma National Guard COVID-19 response
Oklahoma Army National Guard Sgt. Douglas Engle demonstrates how to place an advanced airway at the 90th Troop Command Headquarters in Oklahoma City April 10-11, 2020. The training will prepare Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard medical personnel for potential missions with civilian counterparts in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 across the state. Oklahoma National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Schroeder.

Monday, Kirby confirmed that the secretary of defense had yet to respond to Stitt’s letter. The delay in response was seized on by Oklahoma’s top general, Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, as reason to issue a memo ordering that Oklahoma troops not enforce the mandate.

Mancino’s role is another wrinkle in Oklahoma’s vaccine ploy. The day before Veterans Day, Stitt fired the notably pro-vaccine adjutant general of the guard, Maj. Gen. Michael Thompson, and replaced him with Mancino.

“This policy is not anti-vaccine,” Mancino said in a statement posted on the Oklahoma National Guard website. “I and the Governor are both vaccinated. I encourage all our Oklahoma Guard Members to get vaccinated if they choose to do so. We want to educate and inform our Soldiers and Airmen so that they can make an informed decision regarding the DoD Vaccine Mandate.”

Thompson, the former adjutant general, told The New York Times that the governor did not give him a reason for his firing. “It’s political,” Thompson said. “There’s not another reason for it.”

oklahoma guard vaccine
Former Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, left, and Mrs. Deborah Thompson place major general shoulder boards on Brig. Gen. Michael C. Thompson, former adjutant general for Oklahoma, during his promotion ceremony in 2017. Thompson was fired last week by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt. Photo by Kendall James.

“Failing to follow the Governor’s lawful orders while on Title 32 would be both illegal, unethical, and against our sworn oaths,” Mancino said in his statement. “The Governor is hoping for Federal Relief from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and in the interim has granted state relief from this requirement.”

Mancino’s original memorandum about the mandate specified that no administrative or legal action would be taken against guard members who opted out of receiving the vaccine. 

“If you are not mobilized on Title 10 orders, the only entity that can give you a ‘lawful’ order — that is an order backed by the authority of law — is the Governor and his designated State chain of command. That ‘law’ is Title 32 U.S. code,” Mancino said. “This is easily seen by the fact that the UCMJ does not apply to you in Title 32 status. Instead, you are governed by the Oklahoma Code of Military Justice.”

Kirby said the Pentagon sees it differently. “It is a lawful order for National Guardsmen to receive the COVID vaccine,” he said. “It is a lawful order.”

Read Next: 800 Say ‘No’ at Air Force Vaccine Deadline

Maggie BenZvi
Maggie BenZvi

Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Committee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay-at-home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!

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