Army Guard troops risk layoff as vaccine deadline approaches

WASHINGTON (AP) — Up to 40,000 Army National Guard soldiers across the country — or about 13% of the force — have not yet received the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine, and as the deadline for shots looms, at least 14,000 of them flatly refused and could be forced out of service.

Guardsmen have until Thursday to get the vaccine. And according to data obtained by The Associated Press, between 20% and 30% of Guard soldiers in six states have not been vaccinated, and more than 10% in 43 other states still require shots.

Guardsmen say states are doing everything they can to encourage soldiers to get vaccinated within the time limit. And they said they will work with the approximately 7,000 who have applied for exemptions, almost all of which are for religious reasons.

“We are going to give every soldier every opportunity to get vaccinated and continue their military career. Any soldier awaiting exemption, we will continue to support them through their trial,” Lieutenant General Jon Jensen, director of the Army’s National Guard, said in an interview with the Associated Press. “We don’t give up on anyone until the divorce papers are signed and completed. There is still time.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last year ordered all military personnel – active duty, National Guard and reservists – to receive the vaccine, as it is critical to maintaining the health and preparedness of the force. The military services had different deadlines for their troops, and the Army National Guard was given the longest time to get the shots, especially as it is a large force of about 330,000 soldiers widely dispersed across the country, many in remote locations.

The Army Guard vaccine rate is the lowest among the U.S. military — with all active-duty armies, navies, air forces, and marines at 97% or more and the Air Guard at about 94%. The military reported on Friday that 90% of army reserve troops had been partially or fully vaccinated.

The Pentagon has said Guard members will not be paid by the federal government after June 30 when activated on federal status, including their monthly exercise weekends and their two-week annual training period. Guardsmen mobilized on federal status and assigned to the southern border or on COVID-19 missions in various states would also need to be vaccinated or they would not be allowed to participate or be paid.

To complicate matters, however, Guard soldiers with state activation obligations may not need to be vaccinated — based on their state’s requirements. As long as they remain in state service status, they can be paid for by the state and used for state missions.

At least seven governors have formally asked Austin to reconsider or not enforce the vaccine mandate for National Guard members, and some have filed or signed lawsuits. In letters to governors, Austin declined, saying the coronavirus is “taking our service members out of combat temporarily or permanently and jeopardizing our ability to meet mission requirements.” He said Guard troops should either get the vaccine or lose their Guard status.

Jensen and Major General Jill Faris, director of the Joint Surgeon General’s Guard’s Office, said they are working with the state’s adjutants general to get progress updates, including on the nearly 20,000 troops who are not flat denials and no species exemption request. Some, they said, may be lagging behind in self-reporting, while others are still undecided.

“Part of those undefined are our soldiers who say, well, I have until June 30 and so I will last until June 30,” Jensen said.

Others may have promised to bring in the vaccine paperwork but have not yet done so. Still others are on the books but haven’t signed up for basic training yet, so don’t need to be vaccinated until they get there. It’s not clear how many are in each category.

Jensen acknowledged that if current numbers are correct, there are concerns about the potential impact on Guard readiness in the states, including whether it will affect Guard units preparing to deploy.

“If you look at 40,000 soldiers who might fall into that unvaccinated category, there are definitely implications for readiness and related concerns,” Jensen said. “That’s a significant chunk.”

In total, according to AP data, about 85% of all Army Guard soldiers are fully vaccinated. Officials said if those with one injection are counted, 87% were at least partially vaccinated.

Across the country but one, Guard soldiers are vaccinated at a higher rate than the general population in their state. Only in New Jersey is the percentage of Guard soldiers vaccinated slightly lower than the state’s total population, as it was earlier this month when the data was collected.

The three US territories — Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico — and the District of Columbia, all have more than 90% of their soldiers fully vaccinated. The highest percentage is in Hawaii, at nearly 97%, while the lowest is in Oklahoma, at just under 70%.

Guardsmen in the states have been running special shooting programs and providing their troops with as much information as possible to keep them on the job.

In Tennessee, they set up small teams in the eastern, western and central regions and organized monthly events to provide vaccines to troops they wanted. And every Wednesday Guard members could make arrangements for shots in the middle of Tennessee, in Smyrna. In addition, at the beginning of June, they called in all military personnel who have so far refused the vaccine.

“We had a big, massive event,” Army Guard Colonel Keith Evans said. “We had all our medical providers here. So if there were questions to resolve, misconceptions, misinformation, we had all our data and we could provide them with all the information.”

Evans, the commander of his army guard’s medical readiness command, said they also had recruits and other leaders there who could explain what would happen if soldiers chose not to fire and eventually left the watch.

“We wanted to let them know what benefits they had earned because these are soldiers who had served their time, served their country,” Evans said.

Officials say they believe the information campaign has worked. Jensen said about 1,500 soldiers a week across the country transition to the vaccinated category. “We expect to see greater growth as we approach the deadline.”

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