Official portrait of Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, Commander of the Oklahoma National Guard.
CNN  — 

The refusal of the commander of the Oklahoma National guard to enforce the Pentagon’s Covid-19 vaccination mandate has opened up a dispute about the limits of the federal government’s authority and the chain of command of the military.

Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino has refused to enforce the mandate since he took command of the unit last week, arguing that he answers to Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt who opposes it.

But Pentagon officials have rejected that claim, saying that all members of the National Guard, even when not called up under federal authority, are subject to military readiness requirements, including medical requirements like vaccines.

Stitt wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to inform him that approximately 800 members are not planning to receive the vaccine, which is about 10% of the state’s force. The Oklahoma Army National Guard and Air National Guard have approximately 8,800 service members, Defense Department data shows.

The deadline for members of the Army National Guard to receive the vaccine is still months away. But ahead of the June 30, 2022 deadline, this debate has exposed a rift about vaccine mandates within the military that has heavy political overtones.

It also comes as multiple Republican-led states and other groups have filed lawsuits to stop the Biden administration’s vaccine requirement for federal contractors. The mandates have been a key part of the White House’s effort to overcome the pandemic.

In a town hall recording obtained by The Washington Post, Mancino said, “I did not initiate a civilian-military crisis just because I thought it was cool, right?”

Mancino, who is vaccinated, said in a statement last week that members of the Oklahoma National Guard are not required to be vaccinated as long as they remain under state orders, called Title 32.

But if they’re activated under federal orders, called Title 10, Mancino said in the town hall that he would enforce the vaccine mandate, according to the Washington Post.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded Thursday at a White House briefing. “We believe, and continue to believe that no leader should be getting in the way of any action that will ensure or prevent or hinder operational readiness for our military.”

Psaki told reporters that the vaccine requirement is in place “to ensure that we are really ready, no matter what, to protect the United States.”

Approximately 46% of the Oklahoma Army National Guard is vaccinated, a spokeswoman told CNN. Nearly 90% of the Air National Guard, which faces a deadline for vaccination early next month, is vaccinated.

CNN has reached out to the office of Governor Stitt for comment.

An ‘awkward situation’

Mancino stressed that he was not disrespecting Austin, with whom he said he served in Afghanistan, but that his chain of command runs through the governor, who ordered Mancino not to enforce the military mandate.

“What it means is if there is a conflict - a civil-military conflict - I refer to my sworn oath and the law,” Mancino said in the recording. “It puts me in an awkward situation, but that is the law. On behalf of the governor and on behalf of that order, I’ll follow that order.”

A spokeswoman for the Oklahoma National Guard confirmed the authenticity of the recording.

Austin has not spoken to Mancino about the vaccine mandate, nor did he address the dispute in a press conference Wednesday. On Wednesday, a defense official told reporters on a conference call that a governor cannot relieve guard members from the requirement to get vaccinated.

The official said a service member could still remain a member of their state militia, but failing to get vaccinated “could jeopardize their status in the National Guard,” including the ability to participate in monthly drill weekends, deployments, and serve as part of the US military.

The official said maintaining federal recognition under Title 32 requires meeting military requirements.

Despite Mancino’s position, the website for the Oklahoma National Guard acknowledges that, “Even when not federalized, the Army National Guard has a federal obligation,” including “to maintain properly trained and equipped units” who can deploy promptly for wars or emergencies.

The defense official said military leaders, including National Guard Bureau Commander Gen. Daniel Hokanson, would handle vaccine refusals on an individual basis. But that raises the prospect of punishing unvaccinated troops and not the commanders who have refused to enforce the mandate.

This week, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby would not speculate about what actions Austin would take to enforce the vaccine mandate on the Oklahoma National Guard, either with individual guardsmen or with the commanders in charge of implementing the mandate.

CNN’s Donald Judd contributed reporting.