A new year is bringing new consequences for thousands of Air National Guardsmen who aren’t vaccinated against the coronavirus.
As of Dec. 31, 2,500 unvaccinated airmen and Space Force guardians are ineligible for pay or benefits from the Air National Guard. Those troops are also banned from finishing out jobs, taking on new orders, showing up to drill weekends or participating in training.
It’s the service’s latest step to punish airmen who refuse the shots required by the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate. The number could grow to about 6,100 ousted Guardsmen if another 3,600 or so are denied religious exemptions — which no one has earned so far.
Another 2,100 or so are exempt for administrative reasons, like an upcoming retirement, or medical reasons such as a severe allergic reaction. Anyone who is exempt or waiting to hear whether they were approved for an exemption can still participate in regular Guard events like weekend drills.
Around 107,000 troops serve in the Air National Guard. Over 92% have received at least one shot, and the vast majority of those who started have completed their one- or two-dose vaccine regimen. Their initial deadline to get protected was Dec. 2.
“Airmen are still providing civilian documentation to be entered into their Electronic Health Record, so the numbers may be higher than what we are currently seeing in the military system,” National Guard spokesperson Wayne Hall said Thursday.
Last month, the Air Force announced it would involuntarily move Guardsmen who hadn’t gotten at least one shot by New Year’s Eve into the Individual Ready Reserve, an organization that keeps troops on standby without the training requirements of other components. Those airmen would be listed as “nonparticipating,” meaning they wouldn’t collect pay or points toward retirement.
The National Guard declined to say how many people have already transferred to the IRR or asked to retire, as commanders across the country consider each person’s case. It did not provide data on how many Guardsmen are unvaccinated in each state as requested by Air Force Times.
To withhold pay from unvaccinated members, the Air National Guard is canceling or curtailing their orders and listing them as unexcused absences at drill roll calls. People won’t get an invoice if they aren’t assigned tasks to be compensated for, the service said.
The Defense Finance Accounting Service “does not see vaccination records,” Hall clarified.
The move will also yank ousted airmen’s access to military health and life insurance.
“Reserve component airmen transferred to IRR due to vaccination status receive the same benefits other members in the IRR have,” Hall said. “They do not receive Tricare or [Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance] benefits while in the IRR.”
Airmen can still visit bases with an IRR identification card.
People may not be banished to the IRR forever: Anyone who ends up getting a COVID-19 vaccine after joining the IRR can apply to return to the Reserve component, which encompasses ANG and the Air Force Reserve, Hall said.
“Members will have to ensure their physical readiness and being up to date on all vaccinations, including the COVID-19 vaccination, [as] required,” Hall said.
Army Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, head of the Oklahoma National Guard, told troops Dec. 30 he would go ahead with barring the state’s unvaccinated air Guardsmen from attending drills. The announcement that he would follow Air Force guidance came after the governor’s lawsuit to stop the federal vaccine mandate failed in U.S. district court.
It remains to be seen whether local officials in vaccine-hesitant states like Oklahoma will continue to enforce federal policy at the state level.
“Commanders are responsible to ensure unvaccinated members do not show up for duty and pay documents are not submitted for payment,” Hall said.
COVID-19 has killed nearly 828,000 Americans so far as the pandemic enters its third year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes 148 troops, civilians, contractors and dependents in the Department of the Air Force.
About three-quarters of the U.S. population has received at least one vaccine dose; just over 60% are fully vaccinated. The CDC said in November unvaccinated people are five times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 and 14 times more likely to die from it.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.