WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin rejected Monday a request by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt that his state's National Guard be exempt from a Pentagon requirement that all military members be vaccinated against covid-19.
Stitt, a Republican, had asked Austin earlier this month to suspend the mandate for members of the Oklahoma Guard.
The dispute is the first critical test of the military's authority to require National Guard troops to get the shot. It could lay the groundwork for legal battles with states that oppose the vaccine requirement.
So far, Stitt is the only governor to publicly challenge the military mandate.
In his letter to Stitt, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, Austin left open the question of how the vaccine requirement will be enforced and how far the Pentagon will go to force the issue. He did suggest that Guard troops who refuse the shots could lose their federal status, which could affect their pay and benefits.
Austin wrote that all members of the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard, "regardless of duty status," must follow the directions of Army and Air Force service secretaries for vaccine compliance deadlines.
"Failure to do so may lead to a prohibition on the member's participation in drills and training" conducted under Title 32 of the U.S. Code, "and jeopardize the member's status in the National Guard," the letter read.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said any Oklahoma Guard member who refused to take the vaccine could be denied the opportunity to perform federally financed training.
"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.
In his Nov. 2 letter to Austin, Stitt wrote that 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."
He said the state needs its Guard members for storms and other weather emergencies, and he asserted that it would be "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."
In his response, Austin wrote, "The concerns raised in your letter do not negate the need for this important military readiness requirement."
Under orders from Stitt, the state's adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, issued a memo telling his troops that they aren't required to get the shot and "no negative administrative or legal action" would be taken against them if they refused.
First to be affected could be members of Oklahoma's Air Guard, who have until Thursday to get vaccinated under a deadline set by the Air Force. Lingering questions include whether unvaccinated Air Guard members reporting for their monthly drill in December or January will be required to get a shot, or be sent home or reassigned if they refuse.
Stitt's spokeswoman, Carly Atchison, has said that about 89% of the state's Air Guard -- estimated at more than 2,000 troops -- has been vaccinated. A military official said the Air Guard rate is expected to reach about 95% by the deadline.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss statistics not yet public.
Austin's decision was widely expected, as the Pentagon has argued for months that the vaccine is critical to maintaining a ready force that can deploy on a moment's notice to protect the nation. As defense chief, defense leaders say Austin can set medical requirements for the military, including the Guard and Reserve, and governors don't have the authority to relieve troops of those requirements.
Vaccines against a variety of diseases have long been required for troops, with some getting as many as 17 for deployments around the world.