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Defense Secretary Has Authority to Order Mandatory COVID-19 Shots

Nov. 15, 2021 | BY Jim Garamone , DOD News

The secretary of defense has the authority needed to order all members of the military – including the National Guard – to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said during a news conference today.

The mandate to get the vaccines is a readiness issue, Kirby said, and the secretary sees the vaccinations as the best way to protect service members from COVID-19. 

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The National Guard serves under three authorities: Title 10 (federal service), Title 32 (state status but federal government pays) and state status. The secretary has the authority to order guardsmen to receive the shots "even if they are in Title 32 status," Kirby said.

"The secretary of defense has the authority to require these vaccines for all members of the force, including the National Guard, as I said, even in a Title 32 status," the press secretary said. "When (guardsmen are) called up for their monthly training, they're still federally funded. So (the secretary) has those authorities. And he believes and this is a larger point that vaccinated forces are a more ready force."

Soldier wearing yellow fire resistant uniform plays out a hose. Behind him, another firefighter stands ready with a shovel.
Firefighter Training
Washington National Guard soldiers take part in wildland firefighter training with the Washington Department of Natural Resources at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., May 25, 2021. The Washington National Guard has partnered with the Department of Natural Resources since 2013 to conduct wildland firefighter training annually.
Photo By: Joseph Siemandel, National Guard
VIRIN: 210525-D-MN117-537

Kirby pointed to the myriad missions that guardsmen have performed over just the past year. The Guard has helped in everything from fighting wildfires in a number of states, to helping mitigate hurricane damage. Guardsmen also helped secure the U.S. Capitol following the insurrection on January 6, 2021. 

Guardsmen are also instrumental in getting this life-saving vaccine into the arms of millions of Americans across the country.

Service members ride in a small boat assessing damage.
Hazards Inspection
Louisiana National Guard Spc. Micheal Cotton, left, operates a National Guard boat as Coast Guard Lt. David Schneider, center, inspects hazards to navigation, and National Guard 2nd Lt. Stuart Coles maintains a sharp lookout for debris on the Houma Navigation Canal in Houma, Louisiana, Sept. 13, 2021.
Photo By: Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Vincent Moreno
VIRIN: 210913-G-PO504-1324Y

"(Guardsmen) do meet key national security needs, so it's important for them to get these vaccines," Kirby said. 

It is a lawful order for National Guardsmen to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and refusing to do that, absent an approved exemption, puts them in the same potential jeopardy as active duty members who refuse the vaccines, he said.

Finally, the Guard may be under the command of state governors, but it still has the word "national" in its name. National Guard Bureau Chief Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson addressed this when he spoke to reporters last week at the Defense Writers' Group. "In Louisiana this year, when Hurricane Ida hit the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the largest unit in Louisiana, was deployed overseas," he told reporters. "Folks came from all other states to help out. And in fact, Louisiana at that same time had one of their helicopters in California fighting forest fires."

There are 53,000 guardsmen on duty today, with 20,000 forward deployed. They have to be ready to fight from day one, if needed. And the vaccine is a part of that readiness.

The Guard is the strategic reserve of the United States, and they have a profound history of answering the call. In August 1940, with war clouds looming, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called up the National Guard. France and the Low Countries had fallen and Britain stood alone. The U.S. National Guard brought to the military more than 300,000 service members in 18 combat divisions and a number of air groups. The number of guardsmen federalized doubled the strength of the active Army.