The National Guard is a unique branch of the U.S. military that holds both state and national responsibilities ranging from responding to domestic natural disasters to supporting overseas operations. But tens of thousands of National Guard troops are at risk of being discharged for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, worrying lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the Guard will be left crippled.
Approximately 40,000 National Guard and 22,000 Reserve troops did not receive their COVID vaccines by the June 30 deadline that was set in place by the Biden administration and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Those who failed to comply were cut off from some benefits and barred from participation in certain military duties. As of July 27, the total number of unvaccinated members of the Guard and Reserve hovers at 39,600.1
Due to both the state and international duties of the Guard, federal officials and governors have argued over who has the final legal say on the vaccine mandates. This has allowed for Guard and Reserve troops to have an extended deadline of seven months longer than other service members.
Military Facing Lowest Recruiting Numbers Since Vietnam War
Every branch of the military is already facing recruiting difficulties. Military recruitment numbers are the lowest they have been since the Vietnam War. The Army is expecting to reach only 40 percent of its recruitment target for the fiscal year—missing its recruiting goal by 40,000 individuals.2
“We’re talking about states potentially losing up to 20 percent to 30 percent of their guardsmen and women, replacing them in a very difficult recruiting environment, much less getting them trained to the capability they once were” said Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida. “When the next crisis comes to our shores the U.S. will lack the number [of] Guardsmen and women to come to our rescue.”1
Over 1,000 members of the Marine Corps have been discharged for refusal to comply with the vaccine mandate; 469 discharged from the Navy, 287 from the Air Force, and 345 from the Army.3
Pentagon Refuses to Budge on COVID Vaccine Mandates
Despite lawmakers, governors, and others pushing back against the mandates, Austin has refused to budge, citing national security. Defense Secretary Austin argues that service members who get COVID disease are not able to work, which jeopardizes the ability to meet combat mission requirements. Secretary Austin wrote to governors that vaccination is key to maintain a healthy military force and to protecting the American people.4
Katherine Kuzminski, director of the Military, Veterans, and Society program, stated:
The whole foundation of military action and conflict is based upon the ability to follow through with a lawful order…they don’t necessarily want to retain people who have indicated that they won’t follow a lawful order when it comes to vaccination.1
Several Republican governors are fighting the vaccine mandate for their National Guard troops, with governors from Alaska, Oklahoma, and Texas filing lawsuits over the mandate.3
Rep. Waltz, a 26-year veteran, said:
I fully understand… good order and discipline and ‘an order is an order’. You order the platoon to charge the machine gun on the top of the hill, they’ve got to follow it. But I also think it’s incumbent on us as leaders to constantly evaluate the cost and the risk of our orders. Maybe charging that hill is going to be too costly to that unit.1
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1 Shkolnikova S. Fate of unvaccinated National Guard members and reservists sparks fear on Capitol Hill of mass military separations. Stars and Stripes July 27, 2022.
2 Kube C, Boigon M. Every branch of the military is struggling to make its 2022 recruiting goals, officials say. NBC News June 27, 2022.
3 Hadley G. Nearly all Airmen discharged over Covid-19 vaccine gets general discharges. Air Force Mag Apr. 29, 2022.
4 Associated Press. Austin to governors: Guard troops must get Covid vaccine. Politico Jan. 31, 2022.