WASHINGTON – Four cadets at the Air Force Academy might not graduate or be commissioned as military officers this month because they have refused the COVID-19 vaccine, and they might be required to pay back thousands of dollars in tuition costs, according to Air Force officials.
It’s the only military academy, so far, where cadets might face such penalties. The Army and Navy said that as of now, not one of their seniors is being prevented from graduating at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, or the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, due to vaccine refusals. The graduations are in about two weeks.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last year made the COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for service members, including those at the military academies, saying the vaccine is critical to maintaining military readiness and the health of the force.
Military leaders have argued that troops for decades have been required to get as many as 17 vaccines in order to maintain the health of the force, particularly those deploying overseas. Students arriving at the military academies get a regimen of shots on their first day – including measles, mumps and rubella – if they aren’t already vaccinated. And they routinely get flu shots in the fall.
Members of Congress, the military and the public have questioned whether the exemption reviews by the military services have been fair. There have been multiple lawsuits filed against the mandate, mainly centering on the fact that very few service members have been granted religious exemptions from the shots.
Before the COVID-19 vaccine, very few military members sought religious exemptions to any vaccines.
Lt. Col. Brian Maguire, an Air Force Academy spokesman, said that while vaccination status might hinder the graduation of the four seniors, “there are still two weeks until graduation, so their status could change as the cadets weigh their options.”
According to Maguire, the four cadets – who are not named – have been informed of the potential consequences, and have met with the academy’s superintendent. In addition, there are two juniors, one sophomore and six freshmen at the academy who have also refused the vaccine.
The military academies for years have required students under certain circumstances to repay tuition costs if they leave during their junior or senior year. Often those involve students with disciplinary issues or similar problems. The costs can be as much as $200,000, or more, and any final decision on repayment is made by the service secretary.
West Point said that no members of the Class of 2022 have refused the vaccine.
Across the military, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps have discharged almost 4,000 active-duty service members for refusing the vaccine. According to recent data released by the services, more than 2,100 Marines, 900 sailors, 500 soldiers and 360 airmen have been thrown out of the military, and at least 50 were discharged during entry level training, before they moved into active-duty service.