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Deadline passes and 1 in 10 Army National Guard soldiers still unvaccinated for Covid. Will they be expelled?

Defense Secretary Austin said soldiers who were unvaccinated could face “separation,” or expulsion from the service. But can the military afford to do that as recruiting slumps?
A member of the National Guard prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in New Orleans on Aug. 24, 2021.
A member of the National Guard prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine in New Orleans on Aug. 24, 2021.Bryan Tarnowski / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The deadline for all Army National Guard soldiers to be vaccinated for Covid passed at midnight, with about a tenth of the 330,000 soldiers still unvaccinated and subject to financial penalties or potential future expulsion.

Defense officials said earlier this week, however, that amid the Guard's recruiting crisis, there were already signs that unit commanders may be allowed to let unvaccinated troops continue receiving pay and benefits for some period. On Friday, the Army announced a way for commanders to keep unvaccinated soldiers on limited duty.

In November, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin directed that members of the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard who were unvaccinated by the deadline would be unable to participate in drills, get paid or put their service days toward their retirement. Their continued refusal could result in "separation," or expulsion from the service.

About 14,000 members of the Army Guard had explicitly refused to be vaccinated, but new figures released by the Army show that number has dropped to under 12,000. Another 7,000 have requested exemptions, many for religious reasons, the officials said.

Prior to publication of this article, the Army did not answer questions about whether it would enforce the threat of separation. On Friday afternoon, the Army released a statement saying it will begin enforcing the mandate, and that “soldiers who refuse the vaccination order without an approved or pending exemption request are subject to adverse administrative actions, including flags, bars to service, and official reprimands. In the future, Soldiers who continue to refuse the vaccination order without an exemption may be subject to additional adverse administrative action, including separation.”

On Monday, NBC News reported that every branch of the U.S. military is struggling to meet its 2022 recruiting goals.

As of June 27, 86.4% of Army Guard soldiers were fully vaccinated and 88.59% had received at least one dose of the vaccine. The Army Guard has about 330,000 total members, meaning that more than 37,000 had not been vaccinated as of Monday.

After publication, the Army released new figures for total vaccinations, showing the Army Guard is at 87% fully vaccinated and 89% vaccinated with one dose. The Army Reserve is at 88% fully vaccinated and 89% with one dose. It is also scheduled to begin enforcing the vaccination requirement Friday.

Earlier this week, defense officials said that because of the fear of losing troops in a bad year for recruiting, individual unit commanders might be allowed to put unvaccinated troops in a temporary status that would let them keep their pay and benefits longer.

On Friday afternoon, the Army announced that unit commanders will be able to activate and pay soldiers for limited administrative purposes, such as receiving the vaccine, processing their exemption requests or conducting separation procedures. Soldiers will be paid and/or receive retirement credit for these service days.

The officials say that if the unvaccinated troops have requested an exemption, have begun vaccination but not entered their information into the military's electronic health record, or if they are being processed for separation, commanders can assign them to a temporary duty status that allows them to be paid and earn retirement credit, potentially for months, while they complete their administrative processes. 

Overall, about 90% of the total 435,000 National Guard service members — both the Air Guard and the Army Guard — are now vaccinated, according to National Guard officials. About 94% of the Air Guard members are vaccinated. 

Defense officials are hopeful some of the more than 37,000 Army Guard holdouts will get their vaccine and not be forced out.

“We’re going to give every soldier every opportunity to get vaccinated and continue their military career,” said Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen, director of the Army Guard. “We’re not giving up on anybody until the separation paperwork is signed and completed.”

To date, no Army Guard or Army Reserve soldiers have been separated for refusing the vaccine.