OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt and Pentagon officials dug in Tuesday as their battle over COVID-19 vaccine requirements for the Oklahoma National Guard intensified ahead of Thursday’s vaccination deadline for thousands of men and women in the Air National Guard.

Stitt remained defiant following a letter sent Monday by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, which warned that all members of the Oklahoma National Guard must comply with the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate or face a prohibition on their participation in drills or training. The letter’s contents echoed earlier comments made by Pentagon officials but marked Austin’s first formal response to Stitt’s Nov. 2 request that Austin suspend the military’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement for the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard.

Stitt then later vowed that he would take no administrative or legal action against thousands of National Guard personnel who have refused to comply with the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate.

“Gov. Stitt appreciates that Secretary Austin responded to his letter and maintains his position that the governor is the commander in chief for all members of the Oklahoma National Guard while they are on Title 32 status,” Charlie Hannema, a Stitt spokesman, said Tuesday.

Under Title 32, the National Guard is a state-controlled, federally funded entity that takes orders from the governor, according to the Oklahoma National Guard. Under Title 10, when called up, the Guard takes its orders from federal authorities.

The Pentagon on Tuesday noted that the federal government funds the National Guard, even under Title 32, so training operations that fall under Title 32, much less Title 10, come under Austin’s purview, meaning Air and Army National Guard soldiers must comply with federal vaccination requirements.

“So one could elect not to take the vaccine, of course, but then you would be putting at jeopardy your ability to stay in the National Guard,” said John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary.

Kirby said unvaccinated Oklahoma National Guard personnel wouldn’t be allowed to train, drill or contribute to operations under Title 10 or Title 32, which could lead to a decertification of their skills and result in them being no longer able to serve in the Guard.

‘Caught in the middle’

Stitt had requested Austin suspend the mandatory vaccine obligations because it could limit the number of individuals able to respond during an emergency and because the mandate “violates the personal freedoms of many Oklahomans, as it asks them to potentially sacrifice their personal beliefs in order to not lose their jobs.”

Maj. Kristin Tschetter, with the Oklahoma National Guard, said Tuesday that about 11%, or 250 service members out of the 2,280-member Air National Guard, remained unvaccinated ahead of Thursday’s deadline.

She said about 60% of the 6,500-member Army National Guard remain unvaccinated ahead of the June 2022 deadline.

Tschetter said vaccination uptake rates are expected to continue to tick upward during the next few drill periods. The Oklahoma National Guard continues to offer COVID-19 vaccination clinics during the drills, and leadership is encouraging members to get vaccinated.

“Our troops are kind of caught in the middle at this point,” said state Rep. Josh West, R-Grove, a combat veteran.

He said if members of the Air National Guard want to attend a pilot school, which is operated by the Department of Defense, they will need vaccinations as of Thursday.

West said military fights over vaccine mandates are nothing new. Two decades ago, there was a battle over anthrax shots. But with today’s ongoing recruiting challenges, West said there needs to be a plan in place that allows for exemptions.

He also said he expects the situation will result in a lawsuit between the state of Oklahoma and Department of Defense over who has authority to set National Guard vaccination requirements under Title 32 and Title 10. He said a judge could consider giving National Guard personnel at least a temporary reprieve from the Pentagon mandate.

State Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, whose legislative district is located just west of Tinker Air Force Base, said no matter how the issue turns out, Stitt will emerge the victor at least in the eyes of some of his conservative base.

“I think this will end well for the governor, but whether that’s ending well for Oklahoma, I don’t know,” he said. “The governor continues to pander to his base and put operational or combat readiness second.”

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