National Guard could lose up to 14,000 troops over next two years due to COVID vaccine mandate

Indiana National Guard Sgt. Abigail Gates administers a COVID vaccination in December 2020 in Franklin, Indiana to Sgt. 1st Class Ben Cripe. National Guard officials said Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, they are preparing to discharge up to 14,000 soldiers over the next two years for refusing to take the coronavirus vaccine. (Jeff Lowry/National Guard)

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The Army National Guard is preparing to lay off up to 14,000 soldiers over the next two years for refusing to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, adding further pressure to the challenges facing the entire military. with troop recruitment and retention, service officials said Tuesday.

The Guard is awaiting Army approval to begin separating soldiers who will not take the vaccine, which is mandated by the Department of Defense, and have not requested medical or religious waivers, Deputy Chief Anson Smith of the Army National Guard’s Force Sustainment Division, said in a call with reporters.

The Air National Guard has about 5,400 Airmen who have not been vaccinated against the virus, although the service did not provide an estimate Tuesday on how many of them might be separated or when. Some of those who refuse the vaccine might have pending waivers.

Smith said the Guard expects it will initially lose about 9,000 troops across the country in fiscal year 2023, which begins Oct. 1. He said an additional 5,000 troops will be separated from the National Guard in fiscal year 2024.

The Army National Guard is already operating at around 98% of its final strength of 336,000, meaning any loss of soldiers could impact the force, said Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the Guard Bureau. national. The Air Guard is at 97.2% of its final authorized strength of 108,000.

Hokanson said recruiters in every place he visited told him they faced “unprecedented” challenges recruiting new recruits.

“If you look at last year and previous years, we have always reached our final authorized strength and that is probably due to a myriad of factors that affect all departments,” he said.

Factors include a low propensity for young people to enlist in the military and only 23% of them qualify to do so, the general said. The military also competes with a vibrant civilian labor market that attracts potential recruits.

To attract more recruits, Hokanson said the Guard is talking with lawmakers about providing health care to all National Guard members through the military’s Tricare system, which is estimated to cost about $719 million per year. year. Tricare is now only available to members of the Guard when they are under command for a certain amount of time.

About 60,000 members of the Guard have no medical coverage, he said.

“When you look at the big picture, the fact that there is no health insurance provided to National Guard people, and we have asked them to be ready at all times, … we really have to make sure that they are medically healthy and ready and if they are injured they have been treated so they can really respond when we ask them to,” Hokanson said. “Health care is absolutely essential for this to happen.”

The Guard is also considering changing the way educational resources are made available to troops. When a member of the Guard completes a federal grant and loan application, they cannot qualify as an independent student like an active duty member can. Independent means that even if the student is under 25, the person is separated from their parents or guardian. Not being able to use freelance status reduces the amount of financial aid the Guard member can receive.

“We just want to make sure the playing field is level playing field for them and they can use all the benefits they’re entitled to,” Hokanson said.

He also said the Guard would like to bring back an old recruiting tool from the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that allowed troops to receive a referral bonus for helping recruit a new member to the Guard.

“We have to make adjustments based on the current environment because, in the long term, our nation needs a National Guard the size of us, or perhaps even larger, to meet all the demands that we have,” Hokanson said. “It’s up to us to make sure we fill out our formations so they’re ready when our nation needs us.”

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