10% of National Guardsmen are unvaccinated. Some states say they should be allowed to serve anyway.
Army National Guard troops had until June 30 to get COVID-19 vaccinations. Still, about 10% of those troops haven't received their shots. Almost 11,000 have refused, and thousands more have requested exemptions based on religious or medical reasons.
The Department of Defense last year ordered the vaccines for all National Guard and Reserve members. It said unvaccinated guardsmen won't get paid and can't participate in federally-funded deployments.
A handful of states are challenging the mandate. In Virginia, where more than 300 guardsmen are unvaccinated, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Congressman Rob Wittman wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, urging him to indefinitely postpone the requirement.
Wittman said in an interview that the Guard can’t afford to lose soldiers when it’s already facing recruitment and retention problems.
“We're also very concerned about National Guard members leaving in the face of summertime where you can have obviously hurricanes and other significant natural disasters,” Wittman said.
He said the blanket mandate is outdated and came out when the vaccine was still new.
“The thing is, we've learned a lot more about the disease, the vaccine, and natural immunity and those things, which should be reflected in the policy,” Wittman said.
Other states have gone farther to fight the mandate. Texas and Alaska have sued the federal government, claiming that state governors call the shots when it comes to National Guard troops — not the Defense Department.
And even in some states with high numbers of vaccinated troops, the mandate’s impact on recruitment, retention, and readiness is top of mind.
The 2,600 members of the New Hampshire National Guard are almost 98% vaccinated, according to spokesperson Greg Heilshorn. But he said the loss of any troops could hurt.
“We expect to come up a little short of our recruiting goals,” Heilshorn said. “When you couple those numbers [of unvaccinated troops] with not meeting our recruiting goals, then you're looking at a pretty big bite out of our rank and file.”
Heilshorn said the true impact of any losses might not be known for years.
“We rely on those experienced soldiers and airmen to help train the next generation, so anytime you lose one of those soldiers or one of those airmen, it's not a good thing.”
Connecticut has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, and that’s true for the state’s 5,000 or so Guardsmen, too. About 20 soldiers have refused the vaccine, according to spokesperson David Pytlik.
“In terms of the overall size of the hit, Connecticut’s is very small,” Pytlik said. “We are fortunate relative to other states where it's a much larger chunk of their force.”
But even though the 20 Connecticut Guardsmen who refused the vaccine represent less than half a percent of the force, Pytlik said he doesn’t want to lose anybody.
“Other than just looking at this through the quantitative lens, there's a qualitative aspect to it as well — trying to understand who we're losing when we look at the individuals and what talents and skills are they potentially taking with them when they go out the door,” Pytlik said.
Last year, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin added the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of shots that service members are required to get.
“A vaccinated force is a more ready force,” Austin said in December at the Ronald Reagan National Defense Forum. “Our troops have to deploy all over the world and place themselves in all kinds of conditions at a moment’s notice, so in order to keep this force healthy, I think it’s important that we get vaccinated.”
It’s not clear if the Army will penalize troops who refuse the shot. So far, the Pentagon has not issued orders to discharge them, and Virginia leaders said the Defense Department has not responded to their request to postpone the mandate.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.