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Defense secretary denies request to exempt Oklahoma National Guard from vaccine requirement

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday denied a request by the Oklahoma governor to exempt members of the state's National Guard from the Defense Department's vaccine mandate. 

Austin told Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt that all members of the Defense Department's service branches must comply with the vaccine order or jeopardize their service.  

In a letter to Stitt, according to a copy obtained by CBS News, Austin said, "To maintain a healthy and ready military force capable of protecting the American people, the immediate vaccination against COVID-19 is an essential military readiness requirement for all components and units of the military, including the Oklahoma National Guard." 

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Monday said, "By not taking the vaccine, therefore not meeting a mandatory readiness requirement, an individual in the National Guard could put in jeopardy their ability to continue to serve in the National Guard."

The Pentagon has not received similar requests from other states, Kirby said. 

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FILE: ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA - SEPTEMBER 01: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin delivers remarks at the Pentagon on September 1, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia.  Alex Wong / Getty Images

In a memo released Tuesday, Austin warned that members of the National Guard who do not comply with the vaccine mandate and don't have an exemption will not be able to participate in drills, training, or receive payment even when the members of the guard are under the control of the state.  

The deadline for members of the Army National Guard to be fully vaccinated is June 30, 2022,  while members of the Air National Guard face a deadline in a few days, on December 2. 

According to the Oklahoma National Guard, about 40% of the Oklahoma Army National Guard are fully vaccinated and 89% of the Oklahoma Air National Guard are fully vaccinated. 

Earlier this month, Stitt appointed a new adjutant general who said troops would not be required to be vaccinated. However, the Pentagon stated that the vaccine mandate applies to all service members, and individuals who don't comply risk repercussions. 

The fight over this seems likely to continue. On Tuesday,  a spokesperson for Stitt told CBS News in a statement:  "Governor Stitt appreciates that Secretary Austin responded to his letter and maintains his position that the governor is the commander-in-chief for all members of the Oklahoma National Guard while they are on Title 32 status." 

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