WASHINGTON (NewsNation) — Up to 40,000 Army National Guard soldiers across the country — or about 13% of the force — have not yet received the mandated COVID-19 vaccine. As the deadline for shots looms, at least 14,000 of them have flatly refused and could be forced out of the service.
That number jumps to 60,000 when you count army reservists. That’s about 13% of the force.
Guard leaders say states are doing all they can to encourage soldiers to get vaccinated by June 30. And they said they will work with the roughly 7,000 who have sought exemptions, which are almost all for religious reasons.
“We’re going to give every soldier every opportunity to get vaccinated and continue their military career. Every soldier that is pending an exemption, we will continue to support them through their process,” said Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen, director of the Army National Guard, in an Associated Press interview. “We’re not giving up on anybody until the separation paperwork is signed and completed. There’s still time.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last year ordered all service members — active-duty, National Guard and Reserves — to get the vaccine, saying it is critical to maintaining the health and readiness of the force. The military services had varying deadlines for their forces, and the Army National Guard was given the longest amount of time to get the shots, mainly because it’s a large force of about 330,000 soldiers who are widely scattered around the country, many in remote locations.
The Army Guard’s vaccine percentage is the lowest among the U.S. military — with all the active-duty Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps at 97% or greater and the Air Guard at about 94%. The Army reported Friday that 90% of Army Reserve forces were partially or completely vaccinated.
The Pentagon has said that after June 30, Guard members won’t be paid by the federal government when they are activated on federal status, which includes their monthly drill weekends and their two-week annual training period. Guard troops mobilized on federal status and assigned to the southern border or on COVID-19 missions in various states also would have to be vaccinated or they would not be allowed to participate or be paid.
To make it more complicated, however, Guard soldiers on state activate duty may not have to be vaccinated — based on the requirements in their states. As long as they remain in state duty status, they can be paid by the state and used for state missions.
At least seven governors formally asked Austin to reconsider or not enforce the vaccine mandate for National Guard members, and some filed or signed on to lawsuits. In letters to the governors, Austin declined, and said that the coronavirus “takes our service members out of the fight, temporarily or permanently, and jeopardizes our ability to meet mission requirements.” He said Guard troops must either get the vaccine or lose their Guard status.
Jensen and Maj. Gen. Jill Faris, director of the Guard’s office of the Joint Surgeon General, said they are working with states adjutants general to get progress updates, including on the nearly 20,000 troops who are not flat refusals and haven’t submitted any type of exemption request. Some, they said, may just be a lag in self-reporting, while others may still be undecided.
“Part of those undefined are our soldiers who say, well, I have until 30 June and so I’ll take till 30 June,” said Jensen.
Others may have promised to bring in vaccine paperwork, and haven’t done it yet. Still, others are on the books but haven’t yet reported to basic training, so don’t have to be vaccinated until they get there. It’s not clear how many are in each category.
Jensen acknowledged that if the current numbers hold, there are concerns about the possible impact on Guard readiness in the states, including whether it will affect any Guard units preparing to deploy.
“When you’re looking at, 40,000 soldiers that potentially are in that unvaccinated category, absolutely there’s readiness implications on that and concerns associated with that,” said Jensen. “That’s a significant chunk.”
Officials say they believe the information campaign has been working. Jensen said that about 1,500 soldiers a week around the country are moving into the vaccinated category. “We expect, as we approach the deadline, that we’ll see some larger growth.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.