DES MOINES — About 9,000 members of the Iowa National Guard have been directed to get a COVID-19 vaccination or risk disciplinary actions that could include “separation,” as a last resort, if they refuse without citing an approved medical or religious waiver.
“The Department of Defense has directed that COVID-19 vaccines are now a part of our normal medical readiness requirements, as a result we have recently initiated mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for Iowa soldiers and airmen using the FDA approved Pfizer-BioNTech/Comirnaty vaccine,” Iowa National Guard spokesman Kevin Waldron said Monday.
“This is a readiness, health, and welfare priority for the entire United States military.”
The vaccination deadline for Iowa Air National Guard members is Dec. 2, while members of the Iowa Army National Guard will have until June 30, 2022, to comply, Waldon said.
About 65 percent of Iowa’s roughly 9,000 Guard members had received at least their first COVID-19 vaccination as of Oct 15, according to guard estimates, he noted.
“This past weekend, a number of additional airmen and soldiers received COVID-19 vaccinations that are not yet included in our total percentage,” Waldron added. “We will continue to see an increase in the number of members fully vaccinated.”
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While any soldier who refuses the vaccine without a medical or religious exemption could face options that include reprimand up to being separated from the Iowa National Guard, Waldron downplayed that possibility, saying the organization ultimately “wants all of our service members to continue to serve.”
“We value our service members and what they bring to the table,” he said. “We have trained these airmen and these soldiers for months and for years, and we value them in our organization.”
Though separation is an option, “ultimately, the Iowa National Guard want all of our service members to continue to serve,” Waldron said.
“The outcomes could vary depending on the service member, whether they follow and look for a medical or religious exemption,” he said.: The outcomes of that either approved or denied could determine the follow on steps from there.
“If someone continues to refuse or (is) not willing to proceed with a vaccination, then there are a number of administrative things that we could do and that could be dependent at the time,” he said. “We will look at different options on an individual basis to determine what is the best for them and what is best for the organization.”
During a recent iHeart radio interview, Gov. Kim Reynolds indicated that “while I may have the power” to alter that requirement as Iowa’s commander in chief, the Republican governor said she was concerned the Biden administration would pull federal Defense Department funding from Guard operations if the Iowa National Guard did not comply with the mandate.
“So, right now, we have some time,” Reynolds told WHO-AM talk radio host Simon Conway. “I would encourage them to file for an exemption, to get that on record and stay tuned because we continue to work on it.
“It’s beyond belief what they’re doing. They’re taking away the freedom of choice, and so we’re going to work with that, but that is what they always come back to — it’s the threat of federal funding that will be pulled if we don’t line up with what their requirements are,” she said. “That’s some of the things that we’re continuing to look at as we work through this. It’s a moving target with this Biden administration.”
Earlier this year, Pentagon officials said they would seek to add the COVID-19 vaccine to a list of other inoculations that service members are already required to get. They noted the delta variant is highly contagious and that service members live and work closely together in barracks — increasing the risks of an outbreak that could impact crisis readiness.
“The organization needs to maintain its readiness and our capabilities to deploy here within Iowa or worldwide,” Waldron said. “The Iowa National Guard needs to maintain the people who are capable of fulfilling the mission that needs to be done.
“Just like any private business or public organization, there are policies and procedures in place and the Iowa National Guard is following Department of Defense policies and procedures. We are moving forward with this COVID-19 vaccination implementation.”