By LOLITA C. BALDOR – Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Up to 40,000 Army National Guard troops across the country — or about 13% of the force — have yet to get the warrant. Covid-19 vaccineand as the deadline for the shootings nears, at least 14,000 of them have flatly refused and could be forced out of service.
The soldiers of the guard have until Thursday to be vaccinated. According to data obtained by The Associated Press, between 20% and 30% of Guard soldiers in six states are unvaccinated, and more than 10% in 43 other states still need vaccines.
Guard leaders say states are doing everything they can to encourage soldiers to get vaccinated before the deadline. And they said they would work with the roughly 7,000 people who have applied for exemptions, almost all of whom are for religious reasons.
“We are going to give every soldier every chance to get vaccinated and continue their military career. Every soldier waiting for an exemption, we will continue to support them through their process,” Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen, director of the Army National Guard, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We are not abandoning anyone until the separation documents are signed and completed. We still have time.”
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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last year ordered all service members – active duty, National Guard and Reserves – to be vaccinated, saying it is essential to maintain the health and readiness of the force. The military services had varying timelines for their forces, and the Army National Guard had the longest time to get the shots, primarily because it is a large force of approximately 330,000 troops that are widely scattered across the country, many of them in remote locations.
The Army Guard’s vaccine percentage is the lowest among the US military – with the entire Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps on active duty at 97% or higher and the ‘Air Guard at around 94%. The Army reported Friday that 90% of Army Reserve forces are partially or fully vaccinated.
The Pentagon said that after June 30, members of the Guard will no longer be paid by the federal government when activated on federal status, which includes their monthly exercise weekends and training period. two weeks annually. Guard troops mobilized under federal status and assigned to the southern border or on COVID-19 duty in various states would also have to be vaccinated or they would not be allowed to participate or be paid.
To complicate matters, however, Guard soldiers on state activation duty may not need to be vaccinated — depending on their state’s requirements. As long as they remain in state duty status, they can be paid for by the state and used for state missions.
At least seven governors have formally asked Austin to reconsider or not enforce the vaccination mandate for National Guard members, and some have filed or signed lawsuits. In letters to governors, Austin declined and said the coronavirus is “removing our service members from combat, temporarily or permanently, and impairing our ability to meet mission demands.” He said Guard troops must either get vaccinated or lose their Guard status.
Jensen and Maj. Gen. Jill Faris, director of the Joint Surgeon General’s Office of the Guard, said they were working with state adjutants general to get updates on progress, including on the nearly 20,000 soldiers who are not outright denials and have not submitted any type of waiver request. Some, they said, may just be a self-declaration delay, while others may still be undecided.
“Part of those indefinites are our soldiers saying, well, I have until June 30 and so I’ll take until June 30,” Jensen said.
Others may have promised to bring vaccine materials and have not yet done so. Still others are on the books, but haven’t had basic training yet, so they don’t need to be vaccinated before they get there. It is not known how many are in each category.
Jensen acknowledged that if current numbers hold, there are concerns about the possible impact on Guard readiness in the states, including whether it will affect Guard units preparing to move in. deploy.
“When you look at 40,000 soldiers who are potentially in that unvaccinated category, there are absolutely preparedness implications for that and concerns associated with that,” Jensen said. “It’s an important piece.”
Overall, according to data obtained by the AP, about 85% of all Army Guard soldiers are fully vaccinated. Officials said if those who received a vaccine are counted, 87% are at least partially vaccinated.
Nationwide, in all but one case, Guard soldiers are vaccinated at a higher rate than the general population of their state. Only in New Jersey is the percentage of vaccinated Guard soldiers ever so slightly lower than the overall state population, at the start of the month when the data was collected.
The three US territories – the Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico – and the District of Columbia all have more than 90% of their soldiers fully vaccinated. The highest percentage is in Hawaii, at almost 97%, while the lowest is Oklahoma, at just under 70%.
Guard chiefs in the states organized special shooting programs and provided as much information as possible to their forces in order to keep them on the job.
In Tennessee, they set up small teams in the eastern, western and central regions and held monthly events to deliver vaccines to troops who wanted them. And every Wednesday, members of the Guard could book appointments for shootings in the central Tennessee area of Smyrna. Moreover, at the beginning of June, they called all the soldiers who had so far refused the vaccine.
“We had a big mass event,” Army Guard Col. Keith Evans said. “We had all of our medical providers here. So if there were any questions to clear up, misconceptions, misinformation, we had all our data and were able to provide them with all the information.
Evans, who is the commander of his army guard’s medical readiness command, said they also had recruiters and other leaders there who could explain what would happen if the soldiers chose not to. get shot and end up leaving guard.
“We wanted to let them know what benefits they had earned because they were soldiers who had served their time, served their country,” Evans said.
Officials say they believe the information campaign worked. Jensen said about 1,500 soldiers a week across the country fall into the vaccinated category. “We anticipate, as we approach the deadline, that we will see more growth.”
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