The Biden administration announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all branches of the military on August 25, which applies to members of the Arizona Army National Guard (AZARNG). Although six governors are attempting to stop the mandate for their National Guard, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is not one of them.
AZARNG has not begun discharging any soldiers yet, but intends to follow the lead of other branches of the military, which have. The Department of Defense declared that Army National Guard and Reserve members have until June 30 to receive their shots.
Major Kyle Key, the state public affairs officer for the AZARNG, told The Arizona Sun Times that AZARNG set a deadline for the troops to get the COVID-19 vaccine of December 5, earlier than Biden’s deadline. He said, “We were being a little more aggressive to get that vaccination rate well before the deadline.”
Key said there are 8,000 troops total in Arizona. The National Guard has a significantly lower vaccination rate than the other branches of the military, according to The Washington Post.
Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt ordered his National Guard commander to make the vaccine optional. Five governors asked the Pentagon on December 14 to withdraw the mandate for their troops. The governors cite Supreme Court cases which state that the National Guard shall be under the authority of the states unless the federal government calls them for active duty.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a directive after Stitt’s order reiterating the mandate. In it, he warned that the Department of Defense would withhold payroll funding from members of the National Guard not in compliance.
The Navy was the first branch of the military to aggressively follow the mandate. They set a deadline to be fully vaccinated of November 28. About 5,731 active-duty sailors remain unvaccinated. According to military.com, the Navy has only granted six permanent medical exemptions and no religious waiver requests.
The Navy issued a statement, “Commands should start preparing for administrative separations for any Navy service members refusing the vaccine in their ranks.” Sailors who refuse the vaccine will receive “adverse” evaluations within 30 days that will cause a loss of any pending promotions, stop duty station moves, and cancel reenlistment contracts. They will no longer be eligible for bonuses and special or incentive pays, and will be ineligible to re-enlist. Even if soldiers are allowed to remain in the force with just a reprimand, it will damage future promotions.
Despite the Navy taking the lead, other branches are reporting the first discharges. The Marines discharged 103 soldiers who refused to get the vaccine, with general but honorable conditions. The Air Force and Space Force have 5,700 unvaccinated troops, and have discharged 27 of them.
The Army relieved six active-duty leaders, including two battalion commanders, and issued almost 2,800 “general officer written reprimands.” However, the Army has issued more than 6,200 medical temporary medical or administrative exemptions and four permanent medical exemptions. It has not granted any of the 1,746 religious exemption requests, and has denied 85. Both the Army and Navy are expected to start discharging the unvaccinated next month.
A federal bill that is expected to pass into law as part of the defense authorization bill would guarantee that those discharged receive an honorable discharge or a general discharge under honorable conditions. This would ensure they were eligible for general benefits, although they would be excluded from the GI Bill. Some members of Congress like Rep. Mark Green, (R-TN-22) had been pushing for honorable discharge only.
While only 72% of the U.S. population has been vaccinated, due to the military mandate the Army and Navy are each at about 98%, while the Air Force stands at 97.5% and the Marine Corps at 95%.
Ducey ordered the AZARNG to the border on December 7 to assist with a surge in illegal immigrants at the Yuma sector, so discharging a significant number of them could affect border security. The migrants are not required to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a longtime member of the Arizona National Guard who sued the Biden administration multiple times over the mandates, cited this discrepancy in his lawsuits.
Members of Congress have urged the military to delay the mandate until it was determined what type of impact it would have on readiness. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, pointed out that other COVID-19 vaccine mandates from the Biden administration were put on hold.
“We’re already seeing how the government is backing off enforcement of the mandate for everyone from defense contractors to Amtrak employees — the Department of Defense should likewise hold off on these permanent separations until they at least answer my questions,” Inhofe said.
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Rachel Alexander is a reporter at The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News Network. Follow Rachel on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Arizona National Guard” by The National Guard. CC BY 2.0.