Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the end strength of the Army National Guard as 445,000 — that is the combined Air and Army Guard strength. The correct figure for only the Army’s Guard component is 336,000.
The Army’s deadline for its part-time soldiers in the Army Reserve and Army National Guard to receive the COVID-19 vaccine passed last week, and tens of thousands of members face potential discharges as the service fights to buoy its end strength in a tough year for recruiting.
As of June 30, the deadline, approximately 12% of the Army Reserve was not yet fully vaccinated. That equates to roughly 22,740 troops.
About 44,000 Guard soldiers, or 13.1% of the 336,000-strong Army National Guard force, are also not fully vaccinated, a Guard Bureau spokesperson told Army Times.
None of these troops are allowed to participate in drill weekends or training exercises, and the service plans to discharge them, though no timeline on that process has been made public thus far.
A number of part-time troops may yet still elect to receive the vaccine, and the Guard’s top leader, Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen, said in an emailed statement that officials will “give every soldier every opportunity to get vaccinated and continue their military career.”
“We’re not giving up on anybody until the separation paperwork is signed and completed,” Jensen said.
Some are listening. A few thousand troops have received at least one dose of the vaccine, indicating that they may have started the vaccination sequence as the deadline loomed — just over 2% of Guard soldiers and 1% of the Reserve fall into that category.
Potential impact on end strength and operations
A Guard expert reached by Army Times, Nathalie Grogan of the Center for a New American Security think tank, doesn’t think those numbers will get much higher, though. The service needs to brace for the operational impact of discharging a “pretty significant” number of troops, she said.
Most Guard and Reserve troops are only affiliated with the Army part-time, though, meaning they ostensibly have civilian jobs to fall back on. And Grogan noted that in some states, private employers are barred from linking vaccination status to employment.
“In the reserve components...they just don’t have the full leverage as [active duty with] your livelihood, your paycheck and your family’s benefits,” she explained. “We’re not really going to get many more people vaccinated.”
The first effects the organization may feel will be trying to meet federal mission requirements, which include tens of thousands of part-time troops deploying annually even as the Global War on Terrorism-era slowly draws to a close. The Guard and Reserve accounted for nearly half the troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“[The mandate] just makes the pool of eligible soldiers...that much smaller for federal missions than [it] would otherwise be,” Grogan said.
Although the number of troops facing removal represents a relatively small portion of the part-time force, the discharges could combine with a difficult recruiting year to leave formations short-handed.
Some states, such as Florida, have taken steps to allow unvaccinated troops to transition into a state-only status as members of their State Guard — an auxiliary militia some state governments retain that can respond to natural disasters and similar domestic crises.
But Grogan is concerned that this “political football” encroaches further into politicizing the military.
“It might be politically expedient for governors or executives to take that position, but I think that’s a really dangerous path for...the two different missions [state and federal] that the Guard serves,” she said. “Even if state missions can still be carried out...unvaccinated reservists and Guardsmen are not going to be going to drill [and] learning new skills or maintaining their current skills.
“[It’s] just a snowball effect of hurting readiness immediately [for federal missions] and then down the road [for state missions],” she added.
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.