GOP governors challenge Pentagon over Guard vaccine mandate

FILE - In this Tuesday, June 8, 2021, file photo, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a news conference in Austin, Texas. Abbott is reviving the GOP’s thwarted efforts to pass new voting laws in America’s biggest red state. His announcement Wednesday, July 7, comes after Democrats temporarily derailed a restrictive bill with a late-night walkout in the state Capitol in May. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas’ Republican governor told Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that the state will not direct its National Guard members to comply with a Biden administration order requiring all members of the military to get vaccinated for COVID-19, as GOP opposition to the mandate grows. 

Gov. Greg Abbott, who has become one of the nation’s most outspoken governors in the rejection of vaccine mandates of any kind, told the Texas National Guard in October that its more than 20,000 members were included in his executive orders banning any governmental entity from imposing vaccine mandates. 

Texas has the largest National Guard contingent of any state and hasn’t disclosed how many of its members are vaccinated. 

Abbott’s latest beef with the Biden administration came after five other GOP governors sent Austin a milder letter this week urging him to reconsider the requirements for Guard members on state active duty, when they are under their governor’s orders but are still funded by the federal government. 

Oklahoma’s Republican governor has already sued the Defense Department over the vaccine mandate, and Abbott indicated that Texas could do the same. 

“If unvaccinated guardsmen suffer any adverse consequences within the State of Texas, they will have only President Biden and his administration to blame,” Abbott said.  

Neither Abbott nor the Texas Guard immediately responded to inquiries about the number of vaccinated members. Lisa Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, said they would respond to the letters from Abbott and other governors in due course.  

Austin has said repeatedly that getting the vaccine is critical to maintaining a heathy, ready force that can be prepared to defend the nation. He decided that Guard members who refuse COVID-19 vaccinations will be barred from federally funded drills and training required to maintain their Guard status. 

Army officials said Thursday that 98% of their active-duty force had received at least one dose of the mandatory coronavirus vaccine.  

Thousands of members of the military are seeking exemptions or refusing the shots. But overall, the percentage of troops — particularly active-duty members — who quickly got the shots exceeds the national average. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 72% of the U.S. population age 18 or older has gotten at least one shot. In Texas, about 70% of the population age 5 or older has been vaccinated, according to state data.  

Abbott has stationed more than 1,000 Guard members along the U.S.-Mexico border and given them the unusual power to arrest migrants on trespassing charges. In October, he extended a ban on vaccine mandates to private businesses under an executive order. However, the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature did not approve a measure passing the prohibition into law. 

Military leaders have warned for months that troops would face consequences if they did not follow what is considered to be a lawful order to get the COVID-19 vaccine. But only in the last week or so have they publicly begun following through on those threats. 

According to the services, at least 30,000 service members are not yet vaccinated, but several thousand of those have gotten temporary or permanent medical or administrative exemptions approved. Of the remaining — which is likely 20,000 or more — thousands are working their way through the exemptions process or have flatly refused. That’s about 1.5% of the roughly 1.3 million total active-duty troops. 

Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s main concern is getting as many service members vaccinated as possible. 

“What he would tell these individuals if he had the chance to speak to them directly is to get the vaccine, if they are medically eligible,” Kirby said. “Get the vaccine because it’s the best way to protect themselves and their units. That’s the readiness concern — getting the vaccination rate as close to 100% as possible.” 

“Vaccinating our soldiers against COVID-19 is first and foremost about Army readiness,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said in a statement. “To those who continue to refuse the vaccine and are not pending a final decision on a medical or administrative exemption, I strongly encourage you to get the vaccine. If not, we will begin involuntary separation proceedings.”  

In addition to the more than 2,700 Army soldiers who received written reprimands for refusing the shot, six were fired from leadership positions. Students at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who refuse the vaccine and do not get an approved exemption will not be commissioned as officers.