Anticipation Builds for Unvaccinated National Guard Troops to Return After Mandate Lifted

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
January 26, 2023US News
Anticipation Builds for Unvaccinated National Guard Troops to Return After Mandate Lifted
National Guard troops make their way to buses as they leave the Armory in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 2021. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The top enlisted member of the National Guard said Wednesday that the force is excited to hear back on whether unvaccinated National Guard troops will return now that the military’s vaccine mandate has lifted.

National Guard troops have faced a unique set of circumstances with the U.S. military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate because they can be activated for both state and federal deployments and training. The U.S. military’s vaccine mandate impacted troops serving at the federal level, and as a result, National Guard members who remained unvaccinated could not receive compensation for serving in a federalized capacity, though they could continue to serve in a state-level capacity.

Some states elected not to enforce the vaccine mandate over their National Guard troops, which allowed those troops to stay on for state-level service while they remained barred from serving in federal deployments.

The U.S. military struggled with recruiting throughout 2022, and some military leaders attributed some of those struggles to the COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The military’s vaccine mandate was recently overturned in a provision included in the 2023 national defense budget. President Joe Biden signed off on the defense budget in December despite opposing some of its measures.

During a Tuesday Pentagon press briefing, a reporter asked if the National Guard had seen improved recruiting figures since the military’s vaccine mandate was lifted. National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson said that after the mandate was rescinded, he told the 54 adjutant generals in charge of the National Guard troops across the 54 states, territories, and District of Columbia to reach out to their unvaccinated troops “to send a note out to their soldiers and airmen who are not fully vaccinated to return to drill.”

It remains to be seen how those unvaccinated troops will respond to the invitation to return to federal training.

Following Hokanson’s response, National Guard Senior Enlisted Advisor (SEA) Tony L. Whitehead said “our senior enlisted leaders were excited about the opportunity to connect with the soldiers and airmen that they’re really waiting to hear some news about.”

Too Early to Tell

Hokanson said it’s too early to tell whether the end of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate would see unvaccinated troops return to drill and result in improved recruiting for the force.

“That first drill is coming up in February. I think we’ll get a much better picture there,” Hokanson said.

“As the Chief said, you know, it’s too soon to tell but the excitement about the opportunity to come back and to serve is high. And so we’re hoping that we see some great numbers from that but it’s a matter of waiting to see,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead also said the National Guard Bureau is encouraged to see various National Guard leaders asking how soon they can expect to see unvaccinated troops return to formation.

Around 8,400 troops from the various U.S. military branches were discharged over the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

As of Dec. 16, just days before the vaccine mandate was rescinded, the U.S. Army reported 1,861 vaccine-related separations. All separations were against members of the active force, rather than Guard and Reserve components. Prior to the repeal of the vaccine mandate, 2,575 National Guard troops had requested exemptions to the vaccine mandate, of which 15 were approved, 127 were denied and 2,433 still had not been processed. It’s unclear how many additional National Guard troops may have simply gone unvaccinated without requesting an exemption to the mandate.

The Department of the Air Force reported it had separated 834 service members prior to the end of the vaccine mandate. The Department of the Air Force, which oversees the Air National Guard, did not specify how many Air National Guard troops were impacted by the vaccine mandate; 905 Air National Guard troops were granted some form of exemption to the vaccine mandate.

The Air National Guard, which is a force of about 106,000 troops, reported a vaccination rate of 94 percent. About 6,000 Air National Guard troops may have remained unvaccinated.

Military Considering Back Pay

It remains unclear if all unvaccinated troops that were discharged over the COVID-19 vaccine mandate will be allowed to rejoin the military. Hokanson and Whitehead’s comments on Tuesday indicate that the National Guard believes unvaccinated troops can return and participate in both state and federal training and deployments.

Another issue that could impact whether unvaccinated troops return is whether they may receive back pay for the time they lost after being separated or being barred from federal activation, as in the case of National Guard troops.

A Department of Defense spokesperson recently told The Epoch Times that the department “is still exploring” back pay, but did not provide a timetable for when back pay might be considered.

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