HELENA — The U.S. Army has set a June 30 deadline for all of its service members to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Now, the Montana National Guard is preparing for what could come next for its members who’ve decided not to get the vaccine.
Montana Guard leaders confirmed they are holding a “retention symposium” at Fort Harrison on June 5, for Army National Guard soldiers who haven’t been vaccinated or requested a medical or religious exemption, as well as their spouses. At the event, leaders will answer their questions about the vaccine – and about the possible process of separating from the Guard.
Leaders say the Guard regularly holds “retention symposiums” to give members who are close to the end of their time in the military information about benefits of reenlisting. This event is different because it focuses specifically on the COVID vaccine.
The event was announced in an “Operation Order” on Monday. That document said, by the end of the symposium, those in attendance would either get a COVID vaccine or complete separation paperwork to be discharged from the Guard. However, leaders now say that was inaccurate, and they’ve sent out a corrected message.
“The Montana Army National Guard is currently awaiting implementation guidance from the National Guard Bureau on the administrative next steps for those who have not completed vaccination by the June 30-th deadline,” said Maj. Ryan Finnegan, the state public affairs officer. “The key details we’re still waiting to hear on are what level of discharge they may receive. But the latest and most accurate information that we have on will be provided to the group at the June 5 event, along with an opportunity at that time to receive a vaccine dose before they leave for the day.”
Finnegan said they don’t yet know when they might receive additional guidance from the National Guard Bureau, the federal agency that helps administer state Guard programs.
Last August, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered all branches of the military to begin requiring their service members to get vaccinated against COVID. The requirement initially applied to those on active-duty, while reserve and National Guard members had a later deadline.
Some military members and states have challenged the mandate in court, saying it’s an improper imposition on service members’ rights. However, it has remained in place for the time being.
Montana National Guard leaders say they have encouraged their members to get the shot. They shared a statement from Maj. Gen. John “Pete” Hronek, Montana’s adjutant general and commander of the Montana National Guard.
““When we raised our right hands and joined the Montana National Guard, we swore to protect—protect each other, our communities, our state, and our nation,” he said. “We have gone to war, we have fought fires and winter storms, and now it is time to protect by being vaccinated.”
The Montana Guard declined to give a specific number of soldiers who will be asked to attend the symposium. However, as of Wednesday, they reported 93.2% of its soldiers were fully or partially vaccinated. Another 4.5% were seeking religious or medical exemptions, and 2.4% had neither gotten the vaccine nor requested an exemption.
The Air National Guard’s vaccine deadline was back in December. The Montana Guard says, at this time, none of their Air Guard members have been discharged for failing to get vaccinated.