The leadership of the Oklahoma National Guard has acknowledged that its fight with the federal government over the COVID-19 vaccine mandate ultimately may lead to "career ending federal action" for troops.
Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, the top officer for Oklahoma's Guard, released a statement Thursday that opened with a forceful defense of service members under his charge exercising their "personal responsibility" and "the right to not take the vaccine."
However, the message quickly pivoted as Mancino began to note that his and Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt's authority is limited.
"Anyone exercising their personal responsibility and deciding not to take the vaccine must realize that the potential for career ending federal action, baring [sic] a favorable court ruling, legislative intervention, or a change in policy is present," Mancino wrote in the statement.
State National Guard formations are unique in the military in that they have dual obligations: to both the state and federal government. When under their governor's authority, the Guard is said to be operating under Title 32. However, when deployed by the federal government, they operate under so-called Title 10 orders and are commanded by the president.
"The Governor has used his authority under Title 32 to grant you a limited safe harbor within his authority to not be subject to Title 10 negative actions for not taking the vaccine," Mancino explained.
This distinction -- whom an individual Guard member ultimately takes orders from and when -- has been the crux of the fight between Oklahoma and the Pentagon. That fight now includes a lawsuit launched by Stitt and threats from the Pentagon to withhold pay.
In one of the last paragraphs of his message, Mancino noted that he is "fully vaccinated, plus the booster."
"I believe the vaccine to be safe and effective against COVID-19 based on the millions of doses administered," he wrote.
In his message, Mancino admitted that, ultimately, "continued service in the national guard will require connections with Title 10 authority."
"Such connections including training events, schools, and mobilizations are going to eventually force you out of that safe harbor, and subject you to title 10 authorities. This is reality," his statement said.
Increasing politicization of the National Guard means that Oklahoma Guardsmen aren't the only troops stuck between state and federal posturing. A spokesperson for Stitt told Military.com last week that at least five other Republican governors are considering similar moves.
While Stitt and other governors may be eager to test the limits of their authority against the Pentagon and the rest of the federal government, Mancino's message makes it clear the struggle could have consequences for Guard members.
"It is important you do not mistake my vigorous defense of the Governor's rights under Title 32 as a guarantee you will not face consequences from Title 10 authority," Mancino wrote. "I have no such power."
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.