The Journal Gazette
Sunday, December 05, 2021 1:00 am

Guardsmen miss vaccine deadline

Holcomb will leave issue up to state's adjutant general

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Thousands of Indiana National guardsmen are not vaccinated for COVID-19 despite a key federal deadline that passed last week.

Although Oklahoma's Republican governor has pushed back loudly on the U.S. Department of Defense vaccine mandate, several other GOP states have quietly expressed concern.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb is doing neither. 

“I have 100% confidence in Brig. Gen. Dale Lyles, and he's following the law and will continue to do that,” the governor told The Journal Gazette. Lyles is the state's adjutant general.

The Defense Department announced the vaccine mandate in August but let each branch of the military set its own compliance deadline.

The Indiana National Guard comprises 13,500 troops – 11,500 in the Army National Guard and 2,000 in the Air National Guard. The Army set a Dec. 2 deadline, and the Air Force has until the middle of next year – June 30.

“The health and well-being of our service members are of paramount importance. Our guardsmen protect our nation and help our state in times of need, and they should protect themselves as much as possible from COVID-19 to be ready at a moment's notice,” a statement from the Indiana National Guard said.

“Ultimately, this is a matter of readiness, and the best way to help maintain the Indiana National Guard's readiness is for our troops to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” the statement continued.

Currently, more than 88% of Indiana's airmen have been vaccinated, but only 63% of soldiers have received the shots.

“If troops choose not to receive the vaccination, they can file for a medical or religious exemption. We can't speculate on repercussions at this time,” a spokesperson said.

But Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Tuesday outlined the repercussions via an updated federal memo.

Any guardsman who refuses to get vaccinated won't be eligible for federal training or pay, which includes monthly drill weekends, the Military Times reported.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt believes he has the authority to waive requirements for the members of his Guard units. He sent a letter to Austin saying he wouldn't punish any member of the Guard who didn't receive the vaccine.

Austin denied an exemption Oklahoma sought earlier.

The controversy comes because National Guard troops are sometimes under state command and sometimes under federal jurisdiction, depending on the assignment. Pay is also affected if federally deployed.

Other states have more quietly pushed back. A November New York Times story said Texas and Alaska officials have questioned whether adequate protections are in place for individuals with religious objections.

It isn't the first time mandatory vaccines have become an issue in military service.

A popular talking point is that President George Washington ordered soldiers to be inoculated against smallpox during the Revolutionary War.

John Bolton, former U.S. national security adviser, referenced Washington when he said: “with the Continental Army constantly threatened by smallpox, Washington ordered all soldiers to be inoculated. If it was good enough for George Washington, it's good enough for me.”

Indiana National Guard members have to receive vaccines for other illnesses, including influenza, measles, mumps, rubella and anthrax.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the Department of Defense started the mandatory anthrax vaccination program in 1998. Congress got involved, and there were several legal challenges, but the requirement ultimately prevailed.

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