As Texas National Guard troops have faced COVID vaccine mandates for weeks, Gov. Greg Abbott says unvaccinated guardsmen who face negative consequences will “only have President Biden and his administration to blame.”

Wednesday, December 15 marked the deadline for service members in the Texas Army National Guard (including service members involved in Gov. Abbott’s Operation Lone Star) to submit their COVID-19 vaccination exemption forms if they seek an exemption for religious or medical reasons.

On December 7, Texas Scorecard reported that service members in both the Texas Army and Air National Guards were being forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccination or face discharge from their duties and potential withholding of salary, despite an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott purporting to prohibit such a requirement.

The Texas Military Department (TMD), which maintains the Texas Army and Air National Guards, falls under the supervision of Abbott but can be federalized under what are known as Title 10 orders by the federal government.

Since that reporting, Texas Scorecard obtained additional documentation outlining the guidance the TMD is using to implement COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stating Texas would not impose the vaccine mandate on the National Guard. Whether that policy stays in place remains to be seen.

Bottom Line Upfront 

Service members are in fact being forced to choose between receiving the COVID-19 vaccination to be able to continue their duties, undergoing an arduous process to seek exemption for medical or religious reasons, or facing discharge.

In the event a service member is seeking a religious exemption, they must fill out the memorandum accordingly and be interviewed by a chaplain either in person or via video conference. The chaplain will ultimately determine whether the service member has a sincerely held religious belief preventing them from receiving the COVID-19 vaccination and provide their assessment to the service member’s chain of command.

It is currently unclear how the determination of the chaplain fits within the framework established under U.S. Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI) 1300.17 which states ‘[a] Service member’s expression of such beliefs may not, in so far as practicable, be used as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment’

Reportedly, this is the form being used in interviews between service members and chaplains when determining whether a service member, in fact, has a sincerely held religious belief:

All of this is happening despite:

  • Abbott’s executive order that was issued on August 25, 2021.
  • A memo from Abbott’s office was submitted on October 4, 2021, to Texas Adjutant General Tracy Norris, reminding her that his executive order prevents such mandates.
  • State Republican leadership ignoring the issue for months.

The Requirements & Relevant Timeline

August 24, 2021: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issues a memorandum for mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for all Department of Defense service members.

August 25, 2021: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issues Executive Order No. GA-39 relating to prohibiting vaccine mandates and vaccine passports subject to legislative action.

September 2, 2021: The second special legislative session concludes.

September 20, 2021: The third special legislative session begins. Included on the agenda is a call by Abbott for the Legislature to consider legislation regarding whether any state or local governmental entities in Texas can mandate that an individual receive a COVID-19 vaccine and, if so, what exemptions should apply to such a mandate.

September 27, 2021: Texas Adjutant General Tracy Norris issues FRAGORD 05 [Fragmentary Order] to OPORD 22-1000 [Operation Order] relating to COVID-19 vaccine mandatory guidance.

October 4, 2021: Greg Abbott submits a memorandum to Major General Tracy Norris, the adjutant general of the Texas Military Department, reminding her that Executive Order GA-39 prohibits any governmental entity, including the Texas National Guard and Texas State Guard, from compelling an individual to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

 

October 7, 2021: Republican activists and lawmakers implore Abbott to act on employer vaccine mandates.

October 8, 2021: The Republican Party of Texas submitted an open letter to Abbott requesting he add a “comprehensive ban on vaccine mandates” to the ongoing third special legislative session agenda.

October 11, 2021: Greg Abbott issues Executive Order No. GA-40 prohibiting compulsory COVID-19 vaccination requirements on employees and adds its consideration to the ongoing third-called special legislative session agenda.

October 19, 2021: The third special legislative session concludes without the Legislature having addressed the issues of both prohibiting employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates or considering whether state or local entities can mandate that an individual receive a COVID-19 vaccine and whether exemptions should apply.

October 22, 2021: The Republican Party of Texas calls on Abbott to convene a fourth special legislative session to address the issue of prohibiting employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

November 4, 2021: The federal government officially mandates the COVID-19 vaccination for all businesses with 100 or more employees. The Republican Party of Texas renewed their call on Abbott to convene a fourth special legislative session to address the issue of prohibiting employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates, imploring Republicans statewide to contact their lawmakers about the issue.

November 11, 2021: The list of lawmakers publicly supporting the call for a fourth special legislative session grows to 16.

November 17, 2021: The federal agency charged with implementing the COVID-19 vaccination mandate via employers halts its mandate amid court proceedings.

November 23, 2021: The list of lawmakers publicly supporting the call for a fourth special legislative session grows to 26.

November 30, 2021: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issues a memorandum directing all National Guard components to comply with vaccine administration or face withholding of federal funding under Title 32 among other provisions.

December 2, 2021: On The Chad Hasty Show, Abbott indicates he is waiting on the courts to end vaccine mandates.

December 2, 2021: Deadline for Texas Air National Guard to achieve 100 percent complete vaccination coverage or pending/approved exemptions.

December 7, 2021: 72 IBCT (unit tasked with state military participation in Operation Lone Star) issues FRAGORD 22-035 relating to vaccine exemption guidance.

December 8, 2021: Abbott announces the creation of a hotline within the Texas Workforce Commission that employees can contact to “report illegal vaccine mandates in Texas.”

December 15, 2021: All Texas Army National Guard service members seeking an exemption from mandatory COVID-19 vaccination must submit their Intent of Exemption Memorandum through their respective chains of command.

 

December 16, 2021: Abbott submits a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin indicating Texas will not impose the vaccine mandate on members of the Texas National Guard.

March 1, 2022: Permanent exemption/administrative packets are due to the Office of the Joint Surgeon or State Chaplain (as applicable) for Texas Army National Guard service members seeking exemption from the COVID-19 vaccination.

June 30, 2022: Deadline for service members to have obtained a COVID-19 vaccination, per DOD guidance.

Other States

In early November, Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt issued an order to the head of the Oklahoma National Guard that they would not be enforcing the federal vaccine mandate for service members under state-controlled status.

On Wednesday, the governors of Wyoming, Iowa, Alaska, Nebraska, and Mississippi signed onto a letter asking U.S. Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to lift his guidance from August. The governors stated that determining circumstances in which service members can train and levying punishments if they decline a vaccination—and requiring their discharge from the National Guard—are “beyond [his] constitutional and statutory authority.”

What Does it All Mean?

Multiple sources have indicated to Texas Scorecard that they interpret this as a sort of purge of senior leadership within the Texas Military Forces as well as the U.S. military at large, citing an exodus of much of the leadership in the wake of these mandates and the supposed “anti-racism” education mandated by the likes of the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley.

With Abbott’s recent letter, it remains to be seen whether the vaccine mandate will continue to take place in Texas.

So far, 26 lawmakers have joined the Republican Party of Texas’ call for a fourth special legislative session. This list grew steadily until just a few weeks ago.