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Oklahoma files federal lawsuit after Pentagon denies National Guard COVID vaccine exemption

Oklahoma Army National Guard
Emily White
Soldiers with the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team fire weapons during a training exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California on July 20, 2021.

Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor and Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Thursday afternoon they're suing the Biden Administration over a federal vaccine mandate for U.S. military members.

This comes after U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin sent a letter to Stitt on Monday, denying his request for an exemption to vaccine requirements for Oklahoma National Guard members.

In a pair of press releases, O'Connor and Stitt panned the Pentagon's decision to withhold pay from National Guard soldiers and airmen if they refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in the near future.

"Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandate ensures that many Oklahoma National Guard members will simply quit instead of getting a vaccine, a situation that will irreparably harm Oklahomans' safety and security," said O'Connor.

Of course, troops cannot "simply quit" the National Guard.

The lawsuit asks the court to prevent the enforcement of the mandate, as well as the withholding of federal funds from troops who don't get vaccinated against the deadly virus.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said on Monday that by not taking the vaccine, troops would not meet a mandatory readiness requirement. This could lead to individuals being denied training and, thus, not being paid by the federal government.

Stitt's argument is that unless they're mobilized by the federal government, he is commander in chief of Oklahoma's National Guard members under Title 32.

"Unless mobilized by the President of the United States under U.S. Code Title 10, I retain the authority for all training and governance of the Oklahoma National Guard — including determining if and how training guidelines issued by the president will be implemented," Stitt said.

Stitt is, so far, the only governor to publicly challenge the military's vaccine mandate.

The Pentagon's vaccine requirement, which says that all U.S. service members are required to get the COVID vaccine, went into effect in August.

Guardsmen must be vaccinated by June 2022 — the latest of all military vaccine deadlines. But, if they are going to deploy, that deadline is as early as Dec. 15.

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

Robby Korth grew up in Ardmore, Oklahoma and Fayetteville, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Nebraska with a journalism degree.
Ryan LaCroix joined KOSU’s staff in 2013. He hosts All Things Considered, Oklahoma Rock Show, Oklahoma Rock Show: Rewind, and Oklahoma Music Minute.
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