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Defense Secretary denies Governor Little's request to stop vaccination mandate for Idaho National Guard members

A photo of Gov. Brad Little with a black background that has a marbled pillar.
AP Images

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has denied a request from Idaho and six other states exempting national guard members from the military’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement.

On December 16, 2021, Governor Brad Little sent Secretary Austin a letter requesting “clarity and control of the directives” regarding Idaho’s national guard members.

"I acknowledge your right and need to establish readiness standards for the National Guard,” Governor Little wrote. “However, members of our 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team are already in the middle of a deployment cycle that has been disrupted by a lack of clarity regarding this new readiness requirement.”

When asked Tuesday about the request during an AARP telephone town hall, the governor mentioned that timing was one reason he made the request.

“We’ve got some of our guard that are currently deployed, they’re currently under the full authority of the federal government, and the other issue is there’s a different timeline for the air guard and the army guard,” the Governor said Tuesday.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Secretary Austin denied Little’s request, along with similar requests from six other Republican governors, writing that, “To ensure that we maintain a healthy and ready military force capable of accomplishing our mission to defend this Nation and to protect the American people, vaccination against COVID-19 is an essential military readiness requirement for all components and units of the military, including the Idaho National Guard.”

The Times reports that, while 97% of active duty service members have received the COVID-19 vaccine, the percentage is lower among National Guard ranks. Air Guard members had a December 31, 2021 deadline to be vaccinated, Army guard members have until June 30, 2022, though guidance from October stated any member on federal deployment after December 15, 2021, would need to be vaccinated.

Other states have pushed back on the mandate, claiming the Secretary of Defense lacks the constitutional authority to require state-managed guard members to be vaccinated. The issue is complicated, as each state's national guard can serve two masters.

Members are considered under federal command and control when federally deployed or training. State-ordered deployments are under the state’s control and budget.

While he has fought - and celebrated legal victories against - other federal vaccine mandates, Little said that his request of the Secretary of Defense was not for the same reason as his colleagues in other states.

“I know [the letter] wasn’t saying we weren’t going to comply with [the requirement], but I think the tone of the letter was about some of the implementation [concerns] I’m hearing from my adjutant general,” Little said Tuesday.

In his response to the seven Governors, Secretary Austin wrote on January 27 that any service member who didn’t comply with the military’s COVID vaccination requirement would jeopardize their status in the national guard.

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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