U.S. Army Cadet Thomas Cragg, assigned to the Bowie State University ROTC, receives the COVID-19 vaccination at Bowie State University, at Bowie, Maryland, Apr. 26, 2021.

U.S. Army Cadet Thomas Cragg, assigned to the Bowie State University ROTC, receives the COVID-19 vaccination at Bowie State University, at Bowie, Maryland, Apr. 26, 2021. U.S. Army / Sgt. 1st Class Vanessa Atchley

Army to Begin Forcing Out Soldiers Who Refuse COVID Vaccine, Including Guardsmen

New policy bars unvaccinated soldiers from re-enlistment, promotions as Oklahoma governor says National Guard need not obey Biden's vax mandate.

Updated at 8:09 p.m.

Soldiers who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine and have not requested an exemption will no longer be allowed to re-enlist or be promoted, effectively ending their military careers. The new directive applies to active-duty troops as well as reservists and National Guardsmen, including those serving in states whose governors do not require the vaccine. 

The Nov. 16 memo, signed by Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, says troops’ service records will be flagged the day they make their final vaccine refusal, which follows a meeting with a medical professional and a secord order to get vaccinated. This flag will bar them from being promoted, reenlisting, continuing to receive enlistment bonuses, attending service-related schools, or receiving tuition assistance.

“I authorize commanders to impose bars to continued service…for all soldiers who refuse the mandatory vaccine order without an approved exemption or pending exemption request,” Wormuth wrote in the memo. “The Soldier will remain flagged until they are fully vaccinated, receive an approved medical or administrative exemption, or are separated from the Army.” 

The issue of vaccinating the force, including the hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the Army National Guard, has come to a head in recent days. Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt has rebuffed President Joe Biden’s directive that all federal employees, including troops in uniform, be vaccinated, and his state’s adjutant general has told Oklahoma National Guardsmen that they need not comply with the directive. 

“We are getting to this point where the federal government and state governments are essentially fighting over who has control of the force,” said Anthony Kuhn, a managing partner at the Tully Rinckey law firm and a New York State Army reservist who specializes in military law. 

National Guard troops are largely under Title 32 orders, which puts them under the control of their state governors. When they are activated under Title 10, such as when they deploy overseas, they are under federal control. To retain that ready force for overseas missions—for example guard units were heavily relied upon throughout the miltary’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan—the federal government foots the bill for those troops even though they report to their governors, complicating who has authority to direct those Guardsmen to be vaccinated. 

In 2020, the National Guard was used more heavily than it has been since World War II, with members called up to respond to wildfires, domestic unrest, to give COVID shots and respond to flooding and hurricanes. 

But the use of the Guard has become more contentious. The issue of who has ultimate authority over the Guard is likely to end up in the courts, said Eugene Fidell, a military law professor at the NYU School of Law. 

“There are two clauses in the Constitution, the militia clauses. We, over the decades—centuries, really—we've developed a kind of modus operandi, where, you know, ultimate questions have been avoidable. But we're getting to the point where these questions are not avoidable. And that is a crisis,” Fidell said. 

Kuhn said the Army’s decision to cut funding for soldiers and Guardsmen who do not get vaccinated “was not surprising.” 

“It’s kind of a backdoor way to force this policy on the states,” Kuhn said. 

About 77 percent of the total Army—active duty, Reserve, and Guard—has received at least one shot, and 72 percent are completely vaccinated, according to the latest data provided by Army spokesman Lt. Col. Terence Kelley.  Many of the unvaccinated soldiers are in the National Guard or reserves. Only 51.84 percent of the Army National Guard is fully vaccinated; 60.72 percent have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to data provided to Defense One by the National Guard. There are 329,709 Army National Guardsmen serving in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories.

It has been unclear whether the Pentagon could force Guardsmen, who serve under both federal and state control, to be vaccinated if the governors they serve do not require a vaccine. 

The new Army guidance asserts that no service member who refuses to get vaccinated or to procure an official exemption may continue to serve without limits in the Army, and thus in the National Guard.

Soldiers flagged for refusing the vaccine will be allowed to pursue separation from the military through disability evaluation, retirement, resignation, or separation after completion of service, the Army said. 

This story has been updated with the latest Army numbers on vaccinations.